Thursday, December 17, 2015

Jesus mythicism and better ideas

I'm on record at this blog and my main blog as challenging the thought processes and intellectual level of the leading current crop of Jesus mythicists, or Jesus denialists, as I've called them.

Even the best of them are but second-rate in terms of actual biblical scholarship, and those below the level of the best aren't actual biblical scholars.

That said, I've also said that, while I reject the Jesus denialists — in part because for most of them, their pseudointellectual claims are part of broader Gnu Atheism — I don't reject Jesus mythicism in general tout court.

First, I should note that there's mythicism in the narrow sense, and there's mythicism in a broader sense.

The narrow sense is that the "protagonist" of the New Testament is entirely fictional.

The broader sense is that the Jesus of the Christian New Testament is a somewhat "true to life" character; that is, no such person existed with the alleged historic framework we are presented, but one (or more) people did exist upon whom the Jesus character was based. (I've also said that issues with mythicist claims need to be separated from issues with Gnu Atheism; not all mythicists are Gnus.)

I myself have wondered if Jesus wasn't based on one of the 800 Pharisees crucified by Alexander Jannaeus. That gives the Jesus story an extra century of development time. Combine that with just a 10-15 percent growth rate per decade, far less than what Christianist (sic) sociologist Rodney Stark has postulated — a 40 percent growth rate — and Christianity could be one-quarter of the Roman Empire, setting aside extra-Imperial growth in the Sassanid lands, Armenia, Georgia, and elsewhere, by the time of Constantine. That would be enough to make it influential, yet leave large swaths of the Empire pagan then, and fair amounts still that way a century later.

Said Jesus the Pharisee could have founded a school, like Hillel or Shammai, but perhaps more syncretistic or something.

Or, even a Jesus who lived just half a century before the actual — rather than being born shortly before Herod died, being killed at Herod's hands at about that time.

Now, as far as supporting something like this, rather than making arguments from silence that backfire because they could be used against all sorts of figures of antiquity, or other nonsense, just a couple of passages from Paul suffice to make some sort of mythicism at least plausible.

The first is Galatians 4:4, which reads:
But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law...

Before going down the exegetical road, several points must be laid out.

For the totally unaware, that is that Paul was writing some 20 years ahead of Mark, and at least 35, in my opinion, or more, ahead of Matthew, and probably 45 or more ahead of Luke. Galatians was either Paul's first letter, or his second, after 1 Thessalonians, written just after 50 CE.

So, we can't assume that Paul meant Jesus was born of Mary.

That verse above is the only thing in either the genuine OR pseudepigraphal Pauline letters where we hear about a detail of a physical Jesus, other than "you proclaim the Lord's death until he returns" in 1 Corinthians at the end of Paul establishing the Eucharist.

Even many liberal, critical New Testament scholars seem not to fully grasp that, just like they fail to translate the Greek "apodidomi" in the Eucharist as "arrested" rather than "betrayed," and thus read Judas into 1 Corinthians when Paul actually says nothing about him.

As for companions of Jesus, Paul mentions but two: James (the brother of the Lord) and Cephas. (Not Peter, except for in Galatians 1:18, where some manuscripts have Cephas, which I think is to be preferred as a reading.)

So, we have James, nowhere mentioned as a disciple in the four canonical Gospels (unless you think James the brother of John in the same person) and a Cephas, which yes, does mean the same in Aramaic as Peter does in Greek, but may, or may not, be the same person. (Angle three, since we're into mythicism, is that a "Cephas" was himself, like any "Jesus," radically reworked by the time we're into the Gospels.)

And, no, this is not some radical wild hare of my own; a distinction between Peter and Cephas as two different people goes back to some early Church Fathers (albeit not recognizing they were sowing tares among their wheat).

Anyway, there you have it.

Paul tells us nothing about Jesus himself other than he was a human being, and that itself may just be an anti-Gnostic or anti-Docetist statement. 

As for Jesus' life history, contra conventional readings of 1 Corinthians and Cephas passages, he tells us nothing about Jesus' life story that squares with the Synoptic Gospels and Acts. (Per the link above, John does use the Aramaic "Cephas."

That said, I disagree with the final thrust of the linked piece, which is an attempt to "save" Peter for papal authority and primacy. 

It seems clear, though, that per that link and the use of James with the modifier "the brother of the Lord" as a leader of the early Jesus movement again goes directly against the Gospels, where Jesus himself is recorded as saying, "who is my mother and brothers and sisters," and elsewhere allegedly being described as crazy by his own family.

Let's put this all on hold for a minute.

The verse in Galatians is just one of two Pauline passages for consideration.

The other is his Christological hymn in Philippians 2:
5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
6 Who, being in very nature[a] God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature[b] of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross!
9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.
 Again, critical Christian scholars seem to have their hands on something but they don't fully grasp it.

They recognize that this is a relatively "high" Christology.

But, they don't connect this with Philippians being written just a couple of years after Galatians, or really talk about how this elevated a Christology appeared so quickly. That issue is in more pressing need of explanation if you follow critical scholarship, as I do, in noting that Paul is using pre-existing material here.

So, we know Paul never met Jesus. Did he even have an idea of a historical Jesus he was hanging his hat on? Maybe, similar to Metatron of some of the Enoch literature, Paul's working with an archetype that he's trying to humanize.

And, while most "non-canonical" gospels are derivative, the Gospel of Peter reflects some traditions that are seemingly as old as those of Mark, but yet independent. An earlier floruit for a 'core historic Jesus" allows more time for a wider stream of tradition to have developed.

At the same time, other non-canonical documents further show the development of independent traditions early in Christian life, like the Didache's take on what has come to be called the Eucharist.

And per that plurality of traditions, that's another good argument, per this debate, also linked here, against mythicism in its narrow sense, at a minimum. Unfortunately, the author/framer of the debate either doesn't know New Testament scholarship that well or is engaging in some big cherry-picking. Dykstra misrepresents Q, claims that Lucan source "L" must represent only a written source (even if Ehrman claims that, which I've not heard, it's not true) and more. (Dykstra, per his blog, is not a biblical scholar, and per what I've said elsewhere about the academic qualifications, or lack thereof, of leading horseman of Jesus mythicism, probably is less a biblical semi-scholar than I am.) As for claiming L, and M, have no manuscript evidence, that's the old "argument from silence" that's a petard of sorts, even a potential hand grenade, for mythicism. We still have new manuscripts being discovered today, and even if a manuscript isn't discovered, that doesn't mean it never existed.

That said, Dykstra is right about "oral tradition" being a thin reed. Despite someone like John Lord on Balkan bards (a New Testament prof of mine leaned heavily on him) and the stress on orality in Vedic religion, they both make clear that oral transmission is based most strongly on formulaic materials, usually structurally formulaic like poems and hymns. Certainly, something like the Philippians 2 hymn fits this. But, while noting that L and M could have been more than one document each, the idea that they could be oral doesn't stand up well.

That said, Dykstra then goes on to set up seeming straw men. Ehrman nowhere refers to the "Jesus interpolation" in Josephus as an argument against mythicism. I don't know off the top of my head if he appeals to Tacitus or not; I don't myself, I can tell Dykstra that.

As for the Thomas Brodie he cites as a new light in mythicism? His riff on why Mark used the word "tekton" in referring to Jesus is, to put it charitably, stretching things.

To put it uncharitably, it's laughable.

Acts 14:17 DOES refer to the architect or shaper, and without connecting this to Jesus at all. Given that it was likely written 30 years later than Mark, one would have thought that it would have picked up on that idea. Rather, the other Synoptics "softening" Mark make clear they thought he was calling Jesus an actual carpenter.

From there, Dykstra clearly grasps at straws, with something like this:
As another biblical scholar, Joel Willitts, observes, "Over-confidence in what the tools of the historical-critical method can satisfactorily produce pervades Jesus research.” An article Willitts published in 2005 carefully examined the historical criteria used by six different Jesus scholars. ...
What Dykstra doesn't tell the reader is that Willits teaches at a conservative evangelical college and can hardly be called a bible scholar.

Dykstra does raise other good points, at the same time. If there was a historic Jesus as recounted by the gospels, and a historic James who was the non-Catholic blood brother of Jesus, how did he go from rejecting his brother, per the Synoptics, to being a key witness of his, per both Paul and Acts? (That seems even more problematic for David Tabor, Robert Eisenman and his ilk. And, it can't be interpreted a Pauline-based anti-Jamesian tradition in the Synoptics, as Paul himself calls James a leader of the church in Galatians, and refers again to this in 1 Corinthians 3. Or can it? By 1 Corinthians, if there ever was an Apostolic council in Jerusalem as reported in Acts, even if it did temporarily paper over differences, Paul had rejected Jacobean ideas on such things like requiring Gentiles to only eat kosher-slaughtered meat and food devoted to pagan idols.)

One doesn't need to believe in a "betrayal" of Judas to accept something like a literal Passion story. As I've noted elsewhere, this appears to be likely due to Mark getting "apodidomi" in the Pauline account of the Eucharist wrong, interpreting it as a passive voice rather than a middle voice verb.

As for citing Brodie as a worthy opponent to Ehrman, the fact that Brodie apparently thinks Paul as well as Jesus were mythical makes this, and Brodie's book, a head-scratcher. I mean, the mythicism of Paul is even more laughable than the mythicism of Jesus.

As for the book Dykstra briefly cites, "Is Not This the Carpenter," no, most of the "scholars" in it are not "well-known and well-respected," and from what I saw at Amazon, those who are, are at best for Dykstra's cause, agnostic, if that, on Jesus mythicism. That said, the scholars who do fit that are connected with a more-respected actual academic school of Biblical interpretation, Copenhagen, than Brodie, let alone American mythicists. (I agree with the "mainstream" within the Copenhagen school on a lot of its Old Testament/Tanakh findings. I think a historical David likely did not exist. I certainly think the size of any Davidic or Solomonic kingdom was not that large. And, I think it's possible no historic Solomon existed.)

And, Dykstra does note well that, in the likes of Thomas Thompson of Copenhagen, Ehrman does sometimes draw his "New Testament specialist" net too tightly. However, even without that, if Wiki is accurate, Thompson is on the "far fringe" of Copenhagen, and not just the far fringe of Old Testament/Tanakh scholarship, if he believes almost all the Tanakh was composed between the fifth-second centuries BCE. Thus, I find him less than fully credible for that reason alone, and as noted, I don't think the majority of the Copenhagen school goes as far as he does.

Conventional scholarship still stands behind the "documentary hypothesis" for the Torah, with the JED strands all in written form before the Exile; if's specious if Thompson calls the Torah post-exilic just because the P strand and final editing came into written form after the Exile. (In fact, per that link, Thompson allegedly dates the final redaction of the Torah to the Hasmonean era!) And, I still stand by some, if modified, version of the documentary hypothesis. Even if the fragmentary hypothesis is a modifier, I don't see an extreme version of it as being "controlling." Also, proponents of such an extreme version seem to laten the date of writing in Palestine. And, it seems like critics of the documentary hypothesis want to impose modern book-publishing editing ideas and mechanisms on authors of 2,500-3,000 years ago.

Conventional scholarship also considers the whole of the "deuteronomic history" to be Exilic, not post-Exilic, as internal indicators such as the end of 2 Kings and citations of earlier, seemingly written, sources, show.

As for the claim that Ehrman is an amateur in the area of intertextuality, I highly doubt that. And, Dykstra seems to think there's some special magic to not being an amateur in this area, as though intertextuality is a magic wand.

As for the idea that fear makes some scholars reticent? Might be true at religious universities, but not in the secular world. Some type of fallacy there by Dykstra.

That said, some modern minimalist critics appear to project ideas behind new literary criticism back on biblical writers without any proof. Yes, from Dykstra's piece, some people in antiquity may have thought of Jesus the way he does himself and the way he thinks they did.

We call such people "Gnostics."

Monday, November 16, 2015

Is the concept of god outside of science?

David Ottlinger, a former philosophy prof on a personal sabbatical, says yes

I say no. And, I offer a no that isn’t a scientism-based no.

First, I have to respectively disagree with Ottlinger on how we define the "sciences." I count the social sciences as sciences. If anything, it seems to be quasi-scientism to claim they’re not.

And, I'll also have to respectively disagree with the details of why we disagree. Psychology is becoming more scientific, through folks such as Kahnemann, Ariely, et al, on a regular basis, as far as gathering empirical data, analyzing it, and constructing theories. And, of course, evolutionary psychology — done correctly! — is just the fusion of this with evolutionary biology. Evolutionary anthropology is a similar fusion with cultural anthropology.

There are differences, of course.

For example, to go to history, now that I've touched on psychology and anthropology, and indirectly on sociology.

Historic events are multi-causal, of course. There was no "one" cause (and even no "three" causes) of, say, the American Revolution. And, historians will disagree which of those causes to weight more. But, history can and does conclusively rule out that, say, Manchu China had any causal contribution to the American Revolution.

Therefore, this:
Arguments modeled on science tend to fail because they do not appreciate the subtleties of the concepts and the ambiguities of implication.
Is precisely how the social sciences, at their best, are both social and scientific, because they appreciate the subtleties of concepts involved, but still bring a scientific eye to bear as much as possible.

To be specific, evolutionary psychology ideas of things like pattern detectors and agency imputers being part of the basis of religious evolution, even if ev psych can never meet provability hurdles of modern psychology, do seem reasonable and fit with what we know about human mental development.

While said social sciences can't provide "the answers" on this issue, they certainly can — and, in my opinion, should — "inform" philosophy.

Hence, my "philosophism" tag, for attempting to unduly exclude the sciences from this issue.

Thursday, October 15, 2015


Transience, and more specifically, meditation on it, can fit with several philosophies.

It can be a part of developing Stoic imperturbability. Or, it can be part of seeing the moment-by-moment chance for satori of Zen.

More modernly, it can fit existentialism in many ways. That includes challenges to be authentic, asserting one's radical freedom, and more. Or, in Camus' absurdism, it can provoke one to reflect on his "ultimate question." Or to say "mu" to his idea of meaninglessness.

Or per my Neo-Cynicism, it can lead one to ask, "Why don't I challenge the convention behind this particular transient moment?"

In any case, the world of newspapers has led me to reflect on transience more and more in recent times.

Dallas Cowboys running back Duane Thomas famously said of the Super Bowl, "If it's the ultimate game, why are they playing it again next year?"

Indeed, "news" strikes me the same way.

Most national and international news stories in print (print online counted) are simply small rollings of the ball forward from the previous versions of the story. It's similar in broadcast media.

But, to fill inches of paper, minutes of airtime, or clamorings of website electrons, we see these balls moved slowly uphill and call them "news."

The reality is that the first journalism, newspapers, WAS the "social media" of 200 years ago. It was in part something for people to gossip and mong rumors about, and it was in part actual gossip and rumor mongering.

Life is transient. And, though I despise the term "content" when it comes from a pulp writing mill, it's true that a lot what is called "news" is little more than filler.

Now, plenty a sociologist might argue otherwise. They might say that local news is lubrication for the grist-grinding of local sociological mills. But, is that much more than a fancier way of calling a newspaper "social media," with both connotative and denotative meanings?

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Is the world ready for some neo-Cynicism?

Update, March 13, 2015: The original essay, at the link, was one of the semifinalists in 3 Quarks Daily's politics and social science writing contest. Might sound strange to some to enter a philosophy essay into contest in those categories, but if you'll read on, maybe you won't think that way by the end.

By using the capital-C word, I'm indicating the ancient philosophy, not the psychological attitude.

Is the world ready? More important, is the world needing this? My answer here, at Massimo Pigliucci's new philosophy webzine.

That answer is a "yes," with details of how I think we should update Cynicism for today. Click the link for more.

For people unfamiliar with the basics of the philosophy, beyond perhaps knowing that Diogenes masturbated in public and told Alexander the Great to get out of his light, the Wikipedia entry has a good summary of base points:

1. The goal of life is Eudaimonia and mental clarity or lucidity (τυφια) – freedom from τύφος (smoke) which signified ignorance, mindlessness, folly, and conceit.

2. Eudaimonia is achieved by living in accord with Nature as understood by human reason.

3. τύφος (Arrogance) is caused by false judgments of value, which cause negative emotions, unnatural desires, and a vicious character.

4. Eudaimonia or human flourishing, depends on self-sufficiency (ατάρκεια), equanimity, arete, love of humanity, parrhesia and indifference to the vicissitudes of life (διαφορία).

5. One progresses towards flourishing and clarity through ascetic practices (σκησις) which help one become free from influences – such as wealth, fame, or power – that have no value in Nature. Examples include Diogenes’ practice of living in a tub and walking barefoot in winter.

6. A Cynic practices shamelessness or impudence (Αναιδεια) and defaces the Nomos of society; the laws, customs, and social conventions which people take for granted.
The “flourishing” is of course a commonality with most other ancient Greek philosophies. Point 2 gets back to Massimo’s Stoicism essay on showing some commonality, and is my point of departure, with a different assessment of human nature, for neo-Cynicism.

Points 3-6 then spell out how to achieve this … and why — that the challenging of convention, asceticism and related practices are designed to produce mental and emotional clarity.

In my comments on the piece in response to others (at least to others who get the difference between the philosophy and the small-c psychology), I responded to one person who asked about what a neo-Cynicism might be for, and not just against, my one-word answer?


My version of neo-Cynicism should be seen, in part, as being a more pessmistic outgrowth of humanistic psychologies of the 1950s and 1960s.


And, for the second time, one of my essays for Massimo has been picked up by 3 Quarks Daily.


In essays in the future on this blog, some of them will focus on developing the project of Neo-Cynicism in my personal life.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Card’nal, Card’nal

Indiana State Parks photo

Card’nal, Card’nal, trilling bright, 
In the forests, reddened sight; 
What wondrous hand or tool, 
Did frame thy beauty as a jew’l?

In the oaks, beneath the skies
Whence the fire of thine eyes;
And your majestic color-coat
You wear natural without gloat?

And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the stirring of thy heart?
On what chords dare you aspire?
What hand bids you sing higher?

Thy brightened beak, tis also true, 
Doth to beauty accrue.
Yet your mate, in lesser garb
Holds not a jealous barb.

No craftsman at glowing forge 
Did your work divine disgorge 
No one smiled his work to see
Thy charms themselves just came to be.

Card’nal, Card’nal, trilling bright, 
In the forests, reddened sight; 
Nature’s blind hand as tool, 
Did frame thy beauty as a jew’l.

            — March 29, 2015, with nods, but no apologies, to William Blake

Saturday, February 14, 2015


The following poem, as should be clear from the title, riffs on a famous quotation from Yahweh in the Old Testament/Tanakh. It also references a fairly famous saying of Jesus, one of Tolstoy and one of Wordsworth, concluding with Herbert Spencer.


There is no sin,
As we have no gods to offend,
But offenses there are,
One human to another, in great regularity.
The offensiveness of familiarity
Nests above all in families dysfunctional,
Each alike in their own different way.
No gods need destroy, nor drive mad,
Those who burden themselves
And their descendants,
Unto the third and fourth generations,
With false guilt, shame, anxiety and worse.
Rather than the elders
Being weighted with millstones
And cast into the sea,
The thrust off these crushing weights
Onto the necks of the weaker and younger
Of their own households and families.

Social Darwinism starts at home.

            — Feb. 14, 2015

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Yet more of my mu-ing against Ye Olde Free Will vs Determinism

Cross-posted from my primary blog:

I've written two previous blogposts on saying "mu" to the old, tired ideas of "free will versus determinism."

Now, per a new piece at Massimo Pigliucci's Scientia Salon, and comments there, including from Massimo, to whom I may not be as close on these issues as I thought a year ago, it's time for No. 4.

And, evolutionary psychology (done right, and not close to Pop Ev Pysch) is going to be even more part of the issue than in previous posts.

I want to pick up further on the issue of “confabulation” and free will.

The evolution of the brain to produce “pattern detectors” and “agency imputers” could also, whether as a spandrel, or a deliberate add-on for better running of the pattern and agency “programs,” have also created the idea of free will.

Per the likes of Elizabeth Loftus, on things like memory, our brain is a great big confabulator. Along with that, why wouldn’t we also confabulate our own sense of agency at times? In short, that “agency inputer” of evolutionary psychology fame may be imputing agency to ME, myself, as well as YOU.

Simple, simple concept. But, again, one that traditional defenders of a more robust version of free will might not like.

Wikipedia's piece on the neuroscience of free will addresses this, this issue of post-temporal confabulation, to some degree. Specifically, it's under the section on "retrospective construction," if one wants something more scientific than "confabulation."

It also leads into robust defenders of classical free will seemingly wanting to say that Benjamin Libet's famous experiments have very little to do with issues of free will. And, to keep on saying it, and saying it.

They are true to a degree. But not the degree that they believe, and would have others believe.

In one response, I've said it before and will say it again now. I think at least some of Eddy Nahmias’ claims are overstated. As part of that, I’ll stand by my idea that, at a minimum, Libet has shown (along with others, such as Daniel Kahnemann from psychology with his "fast" and "slow" thinking systems, and others with similar ideas) we need to narrow our ideas about the amount of human mental activity that is fully conscious.

So, for Massimo and others who look at free will to fair degree through the lens of consciousness, he and follow-ups do make a degree of difference. That’s especially true per my idea of self-imputation of agency, above.

This, in turn, is another reason I say “mu” to the issue more and more. Consciousness is of course not the same as free will. But, they are entangled enough that lack of knowledge in consciousness affects lack of knowledge elsewhere.

I think until we know more about the details of how tasks that start becoming habitual are eventually pushed into semantic memory to be run automatically, we should be a bit leery about talking about free will and conscious vs. autonomic, or subconscious or whatever term you prefer for less than fully conscious behavior.

Also, given the amount of follow-up experiments to Libet’s originals, and the interest in them by philosophers, too, I think this claim of commenter David Ottlinger:
It’s the the common opinion of philosophers that Libet is very little obstacle to free will.
Is overstated. I've said that before, too, and noted that I've tussled with Massimo over this issue before, too.

On my essay, I used the phrase “free willer of the gaps.”

As for the fact that Libet and post-Libet experiments only cover a limited range of actions? Well, that’s about current limitations in neuroscience research; it doesn’t mean that what Libet found is guaranteed to only apply to such a limited range of mental actions.

And, again, let’s note that phrase “post-Libet.” Per Wiki, there has been a lot of additional study here. A lot.

Defenders of a robust version of "classical" free will who say the "Libet experiments" don't prove much? Libet's initial experiments are 30 years old. Even with neuroscience still being limited, even only in the Early Bronze Age today, it has still built on that — including with research experiments that have addressed the issue of whether people had enough time to "decide" to undertake an action.

Beyond that, I’ve read Daniel Wegner and others who have built philosophizing ideas about free will on post-Libet experiment findings.

First, as for the issue of consciousness?

To riff on the New Agey mantra, while we use much more than 10 percent of our brain at a time, the amount of our brain that is engaged in conscious deliberational processes may be closer to 10 percent than 90 percent, and surely isn’t 90 percent.

This relates to issues of free will as choice, and choice based on modeling alternative behaviors and their likely playouts.

First, of course, we often don't have time for such detailed modeling.

Second, when we do, if the situation's not totally novel, the modeling is usually at least in part subconscious.

I think much of the “choice” being made is not at a fully conscious level. Modern psychology would indicate this is certainly true in things like habitual behavior, which somewhat shades into my article here (thanks for the link) about psychological determinism.

Per that, and bringing in the evolutionary angle, we know that our brain tries to automate, or at least semi-automate, as many processes as it can, to save energy consumption. And, this process results in some of this modeling being done at a less than fully conscious level.

Libet-type experiments, as I note, yes, have their limitations. That doesn't mean they're foundational limitations; they're quite possibly just structural limitations of the current level of research ability. As for those structural limitations, per the fact that we're 30 years on from the actual Libet experiments, when neuroscience was, if not Paleolithic, then Mesolithic, says something. The Early Bronze Age of today may not sound fantastic, but it's steps forward.

(After all, did we reject Dalton or Mendeleev because their theories about periodicity in chemistry had structural limitations?)

Martin Seligmann would try to rescue free will with the idea of prospection, back-formed off retrospection. Big problems, though, as I see it.

It's heavily invested in teleology, which is no wonder he's getting Templeton money for it. Beyond the religious overtones of Templeton, not to mention the fundraising overtones (and other ethical issues in his past) of Marty Seligmann, I have non-religious issues with teleology.

In ev psych done right, while we may have evolved "pattern detectors" and "agency imputers" hundreds of thousands of years ago, I doubt that we have evolved "teleology focusers" before the last 100,000 years, if we have at all. I think homo sapiens would have had to evolve not only at least a firm level of second-order thought, but even a tentative degree of third-order thought, for such. (A blue jay may be able to think about another blue jay stealing nuts, but not (at least not non-instinctually) about how it should try to prevent that in a goal-oriented way. In turn, this is why, although I have no problems seeing some degree of consciousness in many "higher" mammals and birds, I don't see something like volitional action in most of them.

A rise in third-order thinking among humans would then likely have gone hand in hand with, among other things, a rise in teleological thinking. But teleological foci wouldn’t have happened before that, I don’t think.

Of course, these are all just speculations on my part; fMRIs of animals that can't communicate with us avail nothing, and while old fMRIs showed action in the brain of a dead salmon, real fMRIs, should we find the brain of a dead Homo erectus, will show us nothing.

That said, if neuroscience can't necessarily tell us a lot about what IS involved with issues of volition in general, and what variety of free will, or something like free will, we may have actually evolved, before that, it can tell us more and more what varieties of free will we don't have.

And, to riff on Dan Dennett, it can tell us about what varieties of free will, or something like free will, that we may actually have, whether we consider them "worth having" or not. It will certainly contribute, per a blog post on this issue a month ago, about the varieties of free will worth discussing.


Finally, and once again, none of these critiques of current ideas of free will mean that determinism is “the default option.” Again, let’s please stop thinking inside old two-position polarity boxes. And, let's not forget that determinism, as classically stated, is simplistic in the extreme and has worse issues than classical versions of free will.

This cannot be stressed enough. The limitations in various ways of current theories on free will have nothing to offer to boost the viability of determinism.

Nothing. Period.

Another way of putting this is that determinists are like Jesus denialists. They think that every brick removed from the wall of classical versions of free will not only proves classical free will in its various incarnations wrong, but proves the possibility of anything like free will wrong, and proves determinism right.

Well, nothing could be further from the truth.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Say "mu" to Camus on meaninglessness

Albert Camus famously or infamously said in "The Myth of Sisyphus" (summary and Wikipedia) that there is one ultimate issue in philosophy:
There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide.
Of course, that relates to, and cornerstones, issues in his absurdist philosophy, and in the related existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre and others.

Theists, especially Christian apologists, have used this as a cudgel, whacking secular existentialists over the head with the idea that they, or we, claim that life is "meaningless" and that there is therefore no recourse at end but suicide.

Well, a new essay at Massimo Pigliucci's Scientia Salon, by John G. Messerly, deals with this issue in part. And, it's stimulated me to yet further thought, reflected in part, and starting with, my second comment on the essay.

That said, let's unpack this issue a bit further. I'll then get to the second half of that second comment and go from there.

Camus, of course, said suicide was not the answer — revolt was. Which might be true. Revolt while accepting the modern absurdity of life.

Modern humanistic psychologists of a secularist mindset say that meaning is what we bring to the table.

But, beyond that, what if "meaningless(ness)" as traditionally defined in philosophy and psychology isn't exactly the issue?

And now, to that comment.
I think Camus was asking the wrong question. 
 Life is neither meaningful nor meaningless, if we take “meaningless” to be the opposite of “meaningful.” 
 If we instead, talk about “without meaning” or “meaning-less” (sic) we can hopefully understand this not as an opposition to “meaningful” but simply that the issue of “meaning” is, if not a category mistake, one of those issues about which we should be silent, or even more, per logical positivism, a question that is itself … without meaning!
 It’s true that, as part of our attempts to control our surroundings, we probably have “meaning seekers” as well as “pattern detectors” and “agency imputers” halfway hardwired into our brains.
 But, per Hume’s is ≠ ought, that doesn’t mean that we have to follow them in falsely looking for agency — or falsely imputing meaning where it doesn’t exist, or falsely looking for it when it’s not part of the issue.
Let's go a bit further.

"Meaning" and "meaninglessness" also seems to be one of those polarities, like "free will" vs. "determinism," that's wrong in other ways.

First, it's presuming that a polarity should exist.

Second, it assumes that one should, in some degree at least, "reduce" to the other, rather than both be "unified" in a larger theory, just like general relativity and quantum theory will surely "unify" rather than having one reduce to the other.

Third, like the free will half of that first duality, a desire for meaning — or, a desire to frame ordering one's life around meaning, and trying to justify how to frame it without meaning — seems based in part on religion. I've said that this seems true to some degree of many secular defenders of classical free will, on religion and guilt connecting to free will.

Indeed, the Sparknotes summary, on the first link, puts this in is vs. ought terms, as far as how Camus treats Sisyphus:
As his starting point, Camus takes up the question of whether, on the one hand, we are free agents with souls and values, or if, on the other hand, we are just matter that moves about with mindless regularity.
 Camus is interested in finding a third alternative. Can we acknowledge that life is meaningless without committing suicide? Do we have to at least hope that life has a meaning in order to live? Can we have values if we acknowledge that values are meaningless? Essentially, Camus is asking if the second of the two worldviews sketched above is livable.
But, just as I have repeatedly, most  notably here and in my own essay for Pigliucci, said that we should say “mu” to the traditional “free will versus determinism” polarity, I think we need to similarly “unask” Camus here.  (And Monty Python.)

So, per my pull quote from my comment at Massimo's, if life should not be viewed though a "meaning versus meaningless" filter, what should we then do?

Well, the reference to Farmville, Candy Crush and other Facebook games aside, in this issue of Existentialist Comics, keeping an intelligent Sisyphus happy is probably harder than this. That's especially true for those like Camus and other professional and amateur philosophers who wrestle with these questions. We are "cursed" with intelligence, and speculative intelligence in general.

That said, where do we go from here, to find a better, more authentic contentment than Sisyphus?

To me, the original existentialism, or the Zen of the east from which I get my "mu" to Camus' question, is our starting point.

Recognizing that life simply "is," not in the scientific sense, but in a philosophical and a psychological sense, is the lodestar.

From there, finding contentment comes next. Contentment, to me, is both "deeper" psychologically and less ephemeral than "happiness."

And,, it's not necessarily based on old ideas of how we "have to" find meaning, or create meaning, to be happy.

Second, per the essay that I linked that sparked these comments, as one other commenter noted, "progress" is usually defined in teleological terms. People often define meaning in the same way, which of course is another problem, and one recognized in part by existentialist and absurdist philosophers.

If your meaning is defined from achieving a goal, then you are doomed to frustration in never achieving it, or, like Sisyphus, having your "achievement clock" reset, or new layers added to it, or whatever.

And, what if you do achieve a goal of teleologically-based progress? What then? In the modern West, often, "emptiness," followed by chasing after some new goal.

"Revolt" might be one way of achieving this. But, I think it needs to be somewhat more comprehensive, maybe even somewhat more Cynical, as I discuss in calling for a neo-Cynicism, than Camus realized. The revolt has to include a revolt against teleology.

Even "authenticity" must be put under our Cynical microscope. Too often, "authenticity" is seen in a quasi-Platonic sense, as in "There's some ideal Me out there, and that's what I want to be."

Well, no there's not.

Each one of us is the result of massive contingency in a materialist universe. There's no way any ideal Me or You exists.

So, authenticity means rejecting the strictures of society that don't agree with deeper layers of our selves — before they become part of those deeper layers.

At the same time (heads up, Black Bloc!) it means questioning the idea of "revolt for revolt's sake" (sorry, any hyper-Camuseans) or any other "X for X's sake."

I'm not a process theologian, or anything close.

But, I will call myself a sort of "process psychologist."

As such, meaning is created, not found. And, it's created on an ongoing, not a static basis. It's part of a dialogue between a changing self, a current moment, and a current moment that is part of a larger stream of time.

And thus, meaning changes throughout life. Why wouldn't it?