Monday, April 10, 2017

Say goodbye to History for Atheists

I keep a fairly slim blogroll, as well as general webroll, on this and other blogs. But, blogs I link to, or even incorporate into my feed list, aren't necessarily ones I totally agree with. I'll keep ones that I find stimulating when in disagreement, especially if the disagreement is more on matters of philosophy rather than empirical facts in the hard or social sciences, or interpretation thereof. That's especially true as long as exchanges between me and other authors remain halfway personable.

Well, Mr. O'Neil's History for Atheists blog, which had been linked here, is gone again. (He'd originally been placed here and one other blog after he'd commented favorably on something I wrote.)

His blog is primarily about refuting Gnu Atheist claims about religious figures and ideas in history. And, on people such as Giordano Bruno, he has some good refutation. (And he's not alone in that.)

I won't link to him, though.

When he's wrong, he can sometimes be howlingly wrong.

And he was, a month ago, in trying to defend the papacy in general, and Pope Pius XII in particular, against charges of anti-Semitism.

One medieval papal bull he cited was honored as much in the post-Crusades-era breach as in the observance. And

He refused to even discuss the much later, 1860s-era, Papal States kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara. And, it's hugely relevant to refuting his claims.

So is Catholic hierarchy in the US ignoring physical anti-Semitism as late as World War II. (About halfway down the piece.)

He refused to discuss books by professional historians — non-Jewish as well as Jewish — that undermine his claims about Pius XII. And, I've read several such books.

Then, he says, after I told him I hadn't listened to his podcast attached to the post — but without answering at all to Mortara, high-placed priests' post-WWII involvement in the "ratline" and more — his only answer is "go listen" to the podcast" followed by a stream of insults.

Well, Tim, I've got one back for you.

Go fuck yourself.

Beyond that, my most charitable explanation is that, even though he's an atheist himself, he's still some sort of "cultural Catholic."  Or, more accurately, given his much higher regard for Rodney Stark than I have, perhaps he's a "Christianist" in the same vein as Samuel Huntington et al.

If it's the same Tim O'Neill being referenced here on an online forum, he's also wrong about other issues related to the Holocaust. Among them? Hitler did not come to power via a "backroom deal." Instead, he was duly accepted as chancellor by President Hindenburg as the agreed-upon representative of a parliamentary coalition. That's the way chancellors, premiers and prime ministers are selected. And, his particular selection, as far as negotiations between coalition partners, was no more of a backroom deal than with any other parliamentary colaition in Germany or any other country.

Monday, March 27, 2017

#Philosophy can't justify dumb wars, setting the issue of justice aside

That said, the issue of just war is itself problematic, and has other "baggage," even if its separated today from its religious roots.

NOTE: This is an updating of a 2011 blog post about the Libyan bombing campaign and a philosophical attempt to justify it. What follows is a lightly edited version of the original, along with extended follow-up.

You can slice and dice logical arguments to support all sorts of claims. That includes what evidence you include as warrants vs. what countervailing empirical evidence you exclude from discussion.

Especially in real-world informal logic, how you frame the parameters of the argument is another way of slicing and dicing an issue to an already-held conclusion.

Take Massimo Pigliucci's argument for bombing Libya.

Sure, in a vacuum of Libya and no other foreign policy worries, might be great. But, why Libya and not Yemen? Or, why not Cote d'Ivoire a year ago?

Massimo goes on, in what is nearly 100 posts down the list, in response to me, to say he has non-humanitarian reasons, as well, to support intervention in Libya. I've asked what they are, because I don't see any that aren't either directly or indirectly related to oil. Terrorism? Since we intercepted the ship with nuclear supplies headed to Libya several years ago, Gadhafi had become "our guy," so scratch that, even if Massimo makes that claim.

Massimo also limits the parameters of the argument by saying his support for air strikes doesn't mean support for intervention. But, given criticism of the Obama Administration, that it doesn't have an exit policy, and that our British and French allies have pushed going beyond air strikes, if necessary, that "restriction" might work in formal logic, but, in a real-world political situation, doesn't.

Massimo also, basically, tried to claim in his last comment to me that I didn't know what I was talking about on just war. Actually, I do. But, since he apparently cares not to read Walter Kaufmann's "Without Guilt and Justice," which I highly, highly recommend, he doesn't really understand where I'm coming from. (Should Massimo see this, I'll leave it to his personal judgment as to whether or not he was trying that hard to understand, wanted that much to understand, or wanted to try that hard to understand.

That said, I'm going to further deconstruct, or just plain refute, some of his claims.

The idea that the air campaign was supported by the UN is tenuous at best, per Wiki's piece on the intervention in Libya. That "at best" would be seeing the air strikes as one interpretation of how to support the no-fly zone the UN called for.

First, going beyond philosophism to actual political science and geopolitics, Massimo should have recognized that the likelihood of a successful denouement to the Libyan bombing was about as likely as a similar result for the Iraq War. Related to that, I did a separate blog post about some of his just war claims.

That said, in brief, I believe, per Walter Kaufmann's evisceration of "justice" as an abstract concept, that "just war" as an abstract concept is a mix of philosophical non sequitur and invitation to political mischief in democratic or quasi-democratic societies, especially when inveighed with religious overtones.

Per that separate post, and comments on three different incarnations of his blog home, I realize Massimo apparently has no interest in Kaufmann's book. That said, a number of left-liberals might not like the book any more than interventionist liberals, given the degree to which Kaufmann crushes John Rawls.

Second, if we are going to speak of colonialism, it's fair to ask if Massimo, as a native Italian, might have additional reason to support the bombing of Libya.

That said, let me further deconstruct his actual claims.

Just cause? If we did that all the time, we'd be Wilsonian interventionists to the extreme. And, what if other countries made similar claims about the US, or Italy. I mean, vis-a-vis the US, that's what al Qaeda itself claimed as its reason for 9/11. And, "just cause" also falls prey to some of the same issues as does "just war."

Last resort? That's a judgment call, one based in part on how willing one is to support the use of force in the first place.

Legitimate authority? Is NATO, or a hived-off portion of NATO, a "legitimate authority"? (Per what I said above, with the Wiki link, I did not, and still do not, consider the bombing campaign, certainly not in toto, and even more the deliberate killing of Muammar Gaddafi, then beyond, to be a correct and legitimate extension of the UN's no-fly and cease-fire call.

Proportionality? Failure to include things like "collateral damages" and "unintended consequences," as well as failure to appreciate the difficulty so far in seeing Arab states of the Arab Spring actually transition to democracy, means that, again, proportionality will be calculated differently by different people.

I could be accused of hindsight, but in reality, I had all these thoughts to some degree six years ago. I'm just elaborating now because I happened to come across this post a couple of days ago.

I also forgot to add in my original blog post that Libya had Africa's most vibrant economy at the time, with a per-capita income of $14,000. It also had a higher literacy rate, equal rights for men and women on divorce, and life expectancy almost as high as the U.S., all per Wikipedia. Wiki also notes that on this, and general human development, Libya was ahead of neighbors and Arab Spring predecessors Tunisia and Egypt.

Massimo also refers to the bombing of Serbia over Bosnia, then Kosovo, as a success.

However, he ignores the geopolitics behind this.

Even as Serbian paramilitaries were pulling their horns back from Bosnia, Croatian ones were sticking theirs out. And, we did nothing. (Counterpunch, among others, has covered this.)


Because Croatia was being lined up for NATO membership, as far as part of why we did nothing.

Don't forget that this was another violation of the US's (presumably good for all then-current NATO members) promise to Boris Yeltsin in 1990 not to expand NATO eastward.

And, with that, at least in the U.S., that's the difference between a liberal, on the one hand, and a left-liberal or beyond, on the other.

I visit, and comment on new posts, at Massimo's blog regularly, and have totally agreed with his take on people like Sam Harris and Jonathan Haidt.

But here? Being logical isn't the same as being right.

At the least, without engaging in serious multi-valued logic, with answers that would include things like "maybe" and "maybe not." With that in mind, I wouldn't say Massimo is wrong on his support for Libyan air strikes. I would say that, to use the old Scottish jury verdict, he's only reached the "not proven" state.

And, I wouldn't say I, or others, are "right" to argue against air strikes.

At bottom line?

Not only is being logical not the same as being right, the use of bipolar western logic to try to "prove rightness" is often wrong.

Arguably, such situations are even a good example of Hume's famous dictum: "Reason must be the slave of the passions."

Again, there's not necessarily a "right" or a "wrong" involved. But, in this particular case, since Massimo is claiming non-humanitarian reasons for Libyan intervention, and I doubt he can name a good non-oil-related one, I think, on the passions, he's wrong. (That said, some Humeans forget that he still called on reason to take a role in guiding the passions.

I should note that I've hinted before that Massimo practices "philosophism," the hyper-philosophic parallel to scientism. And, I think it sticks here. I don't know if Massimo would go as far as Dan Kaufmann in admitting that philosophy doesn't have final answers for many of the questions it addresses. But, maybe that would help. At a minimum, non-classical Western philosophies reject such certainty.

I mean, per the above, I probably could invent a multidisciplinary, intersectionality-driven new discipline called "the philosophy of political science" or something, but why? It wouldn't add anything significant to the academic study of political science as currently constituted.

Or, per that piece linked above, and again here, on refuting his claim on just war, maybe he needs to expand his Weltanschaaung to include non-Western philosophies.

Per Iranian philosopher Idries Shah's famous dictum (he himself being non-Western, of course):

“To 'see both sides' of a problem is the surest way to prevent its complete solution. Because there are always more than two sides.”
I noted that I could find seven or eight "sides" either directly involved in the Libyan Civil War or else playing bank shots.

Thursday, March 09, 2017

"What color are these strawberries?" is ultimately a philosophical question, not scientific

A lot of people have probably, via Facebook friends or whatever, seen the photo of strawberries at left, whose production is described here.

I haven't actually opened the picture in Photoshop, but I'll take at face value the claim it has no red pixels.

But, what does that actually mean?

Photoshop's default on color pictures is to present a photo in "RGB" format. That's Red, Green, and Blue — the three primary colors. But, many Photoshop commands let one manipulate not only those three colors, but the three commonly accepted secondary colors of Cyan, Magenta and Yellow, plus a channel for Black. If you've ever heard of CMYK (B already used for Blue) photo editing, that's where it comes from. The Black channel is necessitated by the conversion of primary colors back to secondary.

Anyway, back to RGB colors. Several thoughts here.

First, many colors, even in "normal lighting," whatever that is, aren't what we think. If you use Photoshop much, you'll see that the "green" in grass is about one-third yellow.

Second, does Photoshop's 256-bit format for each color channel imply a level of digital accuracy that doesn't exist? I mean, we can peg light to 500 nanometers. But, is that blue or is that cyan, or turquoise, if we use a non-technical color, or what? Wiki has a full piece on "spectral color" which raises such issues.

And, with that, we're into various issues of philosophy.

Setting aside some aspects of epistemology, we've got what would be either informal logic or linguistic philosophy, first. That is the issue of categories and definitions.

Per what I posted above, where does one color "stop" and another "begin"? That's not a science issue, that's a philosophy issue.

We also have linguistic philosophy issues on how one defines color. Setting aside the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which is nonetheless of a certain degree of strength, some languages distinguish between more colors than others. Isaac Newton, with the rainbows produced by his prism, famously distinguished indigo as a seventh color of the spectrum.

To the degree the above photo is an optical illusion, it trades on something else which is related to epistemology, and to David Hume's project of empiricism. That is the idea of qualia, or why do things seem to be the way they are.

The idea of qualia, if accepted in one of its several forms and definings, undercuts the "blank slate" idea of human perception stressed by Hume, and to fair degree by fellow empiricists. A child old enough to point to a red splotch in normal light, when shown this picture above, would not be able to point to claim it has a color similar to that red splotch on the blank slate theory of the human mind. (I frame the example this way to try to bracket the issue of the baby's mind being "contaminated" by explicit written or oral conversation.)

As to opponents of the idea of qualia? As I've gotten older, and more read in modern philosophy, I find Dan Dennett's arguments more and more lacking. The more and more we do current research in robots, artificial intelligence and similar, the more and more we realize human minds don't work that way. Dennett's other objections are somewhat functionalist in nature.

A side issue is that discussions of qualia often get wrapped up with issues of ontological dualism, even though in reality the two are separate items.

There is no logically necessary reason to invoke ontological dualism to explain qualia. That's doubly the case if one understand consciousness and the mind through the lens of embodied cognition and not Dennett's crudely mechanical and scientism-driven computer models.

Let's take this in terms of color. My cone cells in my eye may have slightly different wavelength sensitivities than yours. My optic nerve neurons may respond slightly differently to my cone cell impressions than your neurons do to your cone cells. That's a thumbnail on embodied cognition and color.

Next, let's head to psychology.

If your father, or mother, was a firefighter, your "suchness" of the color red will be far different than mine, at least if their fire department still uses traditional fire-engine red colored vehicles.

Or, as an adult, let's take yellow. If you're a salesperson for French's, as in French's mustard, your "suchness" for yellow will be different than mine if I'm a salesperson for Dole banana. Or for Sunkist, and Sunkist lemons.

Friday, March 03, 2017

St Paul puffer acts like Jesus Seminar fellows he excoriates

Saint Saul: A Skeleton Key to the Historical JesusSaint Saul: A Skeleton Key to the Historical Jesus by Donald Harman Akenson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Short on scholarship, long on coprolite polishing

I really wanted to like this book, after seeing it at the local library. And parts of it, upon review, I do — above all, Akenson’s critique of the latest version of the search for the historic Jesus, especially as conducted by most of the fellows of the Jesus Seminar.

But, at the same time, Akenson gets a LOT wrong in this book — and, at the risk of concern-trolling for academics, I suggest that he might reconsider jumping from history to biblical studies with any more books.

Some of his errors, per that above, are whoppers.

The New Testament is NOT a “single artifact.” The theology of Paul is not the same as that of the Synoptic Gospels — which Akenson himself discusses!

Second, Yahwism does NOT go back to 1600 BCE. It’s no earlier than 1000 BCE, in all likelihood, and certainly no earlier than that in an organized state called Israel, if it’s even that old.

Now, some more specific errors.

Paul, in his passage in 1 Corinthians on marriage, was NOT giving halachic correction to Jesus’ “don’t get divorced and remarried” passage from Mark and softened parallels. First, Paul and Jesus were operating in totally different Sitz im Leben. Paul is speaking, I believe, in terms of the End Times, and thus, this passage is similar to his “neither Greek nor Jew, neither slave nor free” in Galatians. He’s telling believers don’t change your status in life. Second, he admits in 1 Corinthians 7 this is HIS teaching and not “from the Lord.” Jesus, on the other hand, if we call him a quasi-Pharaisee, WAS offering a statement of halakah.

Next, his accusation that “Questers” want to date Mark pre-70 just to have something before the destruction of the Temple is untrue. Rather, the Markan apocalypse is lacking some vaticinium ex eventu that are in Matthew and Luke, and thus, like Daniel, gives us a dating hook.

Next, claiming the Talmud has nothing historical, or nearly so, about this era? The “gardener protecting his cabbage” from the Toledoth Jeshu was knows to Tertullian, so it at least includes myth from the middle second century.

Soon after that, he is too credulous to Robert Eisenman.

Now, Paul “versus” James and other things. First, how do we know James only believed after Jesus’ death? Paul’s word plus Synoptic disparagement of his family. Now, I don’t believe in Eisenman’s earthly dynasty, but Akenson makes a statement with slim warrant.

Next, the food sacrificed to idols and blood, re 1 Corinthians and whatever council met on this. The meat sacrificed to ideas was not kosher, as he notes. But Akenson then commits either a big “oops” or a huge rewrite. The law on blood in meat is NOT Jewish; it’s Noahide. I’m sure he knows that, and thus is doing a deliberate rewrite, softening up Paul.

Next, if the Mishnah is not historically accurate, how do we know mitzvoth were numbered at 613 in the time of Paul and Jesus? Actually, the number 613 isn’t even mentioned until the Talmud. And, what they are isn’t itemized until Maimonides. Oops! More Judahism pseudo-authenticity by Akenson gets torpedoed!

On the criterion of embarrassment in the gospels, he ignores the variant “he was angry” reading in Mark 1 with the unclean man. Oops again, or deliberate rewrite again?

A bigger possible rewrite is ignoring the idea that Paul may have “invented” the Eucharist out of similar meals from pagan mysteries. Akenson here is bad in general.

Even worse, finally, is his claim that Mark may well have known about the Virgin Birth myth and deliberately discarded the idea. This underplays how oral tradition plays out and eventually becomes concretized, as shown in Mark, then the other Synoptics, then the Protoevangelium of James, etc.

The bottom line that Akenson seems to have, that Saul is a reliable witness to the historic Jesus, as well as a reliable anchor to a semi-unitary development of the move from Jesus to Christ, pretty much fails.

His smackdown of the Jesus Seminar and related issues are probably the primary things saving this from a one-star rating, which is ironic, because in his construction of Paul, he comes off as not a lot better than some of the Jesus Seminar fellows he excoriates.

And, I forgot to mention until now that he says he's going to use the KJV as his English text because of its poetic language or whatever, and he, first cite of it, talks about how it's a bad translation.

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Sunday, February 19, 2017

Another failed book on Jesus and his alleged Davidic dynasty family

The Invention of Jesus: How the Church Rewrote the New TestamentThe Invention of Jesus: How the Church Rewrote the New Testament by Peter Cresswell
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Good on textual criticism; gobs of gibberish elsewhere

Cresswell does good work on textual criticism of Codex Sinaiticus, and related topics, such as its relation to Codex Vaticanus and the possibility that Sinaiticus was created to serve as an exemplar for the creation of 50 bibles Constantine wanted Eusebius to do.

Much of the rest of the book is rank speculation, and no, that comment is not coming from a conservative Christian, but from someone at least as educated in critical biblical scholarship as Cresswell.

First rank speculation is the idea that "Pauline Christianity" is largely derived from Mithraism. First, take the Eucharist, as first articulated by Paul in 1 Corinthians. Many Greek mysteries had similar fellowship meals; this isn't something unique to Mithraism. Second, other themes allegedly from "Pauline Christianity," such as miraculous birth of the savior-god and a dying-rising savior god, were of course known around the eastern Mediterranean long before the rise of Mithraism. Indeed, a lot of scholarship shows that the development of Mithraism was itself influenced by these other mysteries, as part of what made it become a mystery religion itself.

Wikipedia, in its piece on Greco-Roman mysteries, lists a full dozen of them. Indeed, in its piece on Sabazios, it notes Jews were accused of worshiping this mysteries god, under confusion of Sabazios with either the Sabbath or Yahweah Sabaoth.

Third, for Paul allegedly incorporating so much of Mithraism into Christianity, at least in this book, Cresswell doesn't tell us what he considered genuine Pauline letters.

And, though not mentioned here, Cresswell would probably cite the Dec. 25 date of Christmas as showing Mithraic influence. Really? Why isn't that a sign of the influence of Saturnalia instead? Of more likely, of Sol Invictus? Or what about Christmas in early Egypt being placed at Nov. 18, which just so happened to be the date of a major Osiris festival — which gets us back to a non-Mithraic mystery?

Besides, a lot of the Mithra-Christ bullshit comes from that astrologically minded Gnu Atheist/New Ager, the late Acharya S., as the author of the History for Atheists blog explains in detail. That ignores Robert M. Price, who also seems to be more and more of a New Ager along with being a Gnu Atheist, and explains his favorable blurbing of so much of her stuff.

Next, on to the idea that Jesus and Davidic family members were quasi-Zealots not only revolting against Rome, but a dynasty of sorts. This Eisenman-Tabor-DaVinci Code idea has no support within the canonical New Testament and has little in other early Christian literature, until one goes mucking around in the Pseudo-Clementines or else taking a "sectarian" (I see what I did there) view of the Dead Sea Scrolls as reflecting a fight between Paul and heirs of Jesus, rather than being sectarian, non-Christian Jewish literature covering a wide range of issues.

Jesus might have been a revolutionary — with OR WITHOUT being being part of a Davidic dynasty. Or he might have been Geza Vermes' et al's Jewish faith healer. Or he might have been the Jewish Cynic of Burton Mack, and at one time of John Crossan. The fact is, the Second Quest for the historic Jesus and its extension through the Jesus Seminar etc has brought us no closer to a denouement than did the First Quest. Jesus might have been one of the Pharisees crucified by Alexander Jannaeus for all we know.

There's also an element of petard-hoisting here. While claiming limited historicity for gospels allegedly edited by the Constantinian and post-Constantinian church, Cresswell, Eisenman, Tabor et al will nonetheless do their own mining of the gospels for anything alleged to support their Davidic family dynasty ideas. But — how do you know Jesus family passages were edited? if we do have some evidence, how do you know what they were edited from? Cresswell does show some cases where we can know this. In others, he engages again in rank speculation, the biggest of course being that Mary Magdalene was Jesus' wife.

Elsewhere, Cresswell presents himself as having insightful learning only to later shoot himself in the foot. He rightly points out that the "barjona" of "Simon Barjona" in Matthew likely does not mean "son of John" but is the Aramaic for "outlaw." He then, later, laughably claims that "Arimathea," as in Joseph of, is a botched transliteration of "ab Maria," as in "mother of Mary." The reality is that it is a place-name surname, after a Jewish village. Indeed, Eusebius himself, so touted in discussing the text-critical history of Sinaiticus, makes the specific village identification.

That, in turn, undercuts a claim made elsewhere by Cresswell that such place-based namings were rare in the New Testament — a claim he (along with Eisenman and others) employ to claim that "Jesus of Nazareth" must be "Jesus the Nazorean." Truth is, per Joseph of Arimathea's name (and dispute over whether Judas Iscariot is "Judas the man from Kerioth" or "Judas the Sicarian") we don't know.

And I haven't mentioned until now that Cresswell's idea that the "we" sections of Acts reflects a separate document from the third-person narratives of Acts is also laughable. Sherwin-White in his "Roman Law" has addressed this, noting that switching to a "we" narrative was a literary commonplace in the 1st-2nd centuries CE in this type of literature whenever the protagonist was on a shipboard journey.

Also laughable is his claim that Matthew (in Cresswell's attempt to give credibility to Papias) originally worked with an Aramaic version of Q, combined with Mark, and wrote his Matthew in Aramaic.

And, all of this information undercutting Cresswell (and Eisenman, Tabor, et al, to the degree they hold it) is easy to find.

So, contra breathless blurbs, this is NOT a "pivotal" or "groundbreaking" book, other than on the textual criticism areas, perhaps.

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Thursday, February 09, 2017

One will be taken and the other left

For people not familiar with the Christian scriptures, whether some atheists, or some Xns both liberal and fundamentalist or conservative evangelical, that's Matthew 24:40 I'm referencing. And, whether riffing directly off Pauline material or not, the "Great Apocalypse" of the synoptic gospels at least arguably supports Rapture-type ideas, contra, oh, an L.D. Burnett at S-USIH, the Society for U.S. Intellectual History, who claims the Rapture is un-Christian.

Baptism for the dead, of Mormon doctrine, is also Christian, L.D. and others. Deal with it.

But let's get back to why that header I have us up there.

In the fairly small town to which I recently moved, a lady announced earlier this week that she had officially been pronounced cancer-free by her doctor after a fairly severe cancer with arduous treatment process.

She took this all as a gift from Jesus, etc. She also went so far as to say, even for comment to the newspaper, that she was using this as a tool to try to convert her atheist doctor.

Erm, not so fast, ma'am.

The very next day, a young firefighter, or rather, a young ex-firefighter on forced medical retirement due to extensive radiation-induced heart damage due to an infancy neuroblastoma cancer, died.

And, where was god then, when in an existential Rapture-like sense, one was taken and one was left.

Was it better for the firefighter to die as gain than live for Christ?

Well, the conservative Christian apologists will offer up the tender mercies of god, the inscrutability of god, silver linings that we can't see, etc.

Then, when the likes of me counter with Ye Olde Problem of Evil?

Some of them will counter with "original sin."

Do not go there, unless you really want your biblical literalism to be that repugnant.