The Star of Bethlehem: The Definitive Takedown

Cover of Aaron Adair's book The Star of Bethlehem: A Skeptical View, showing a star to the left, the milky way as viewed from earth to the right, part of an astrological horoscope to the bottom right, and the stock bible image of the magi on camels in shadow at the bottom.An astrophysicist has just done a bang-up job debunking the Star of Bethlehem and its affiliated fawning scholarship. All in just 155 pages (in fact, really only 128 if you skip the appendix, glossary, and bibliography). The author is Dr. Aaron Adair. The book is The Star of Bethlehem: A Skeptical View (also available on kindle). Like any responsible amateur, he sought the help of historians, classicists, and specialists for composing his sections on the literary and historical arguments, and for translating the original Greek (even though he has some competence in the language himself). His research was exhaustive. His key arguments fairly conclusive. He explicitly sets aside many eye-rolling side-debates like dating the death of Herod the Great, yet even then he mentions them and his reasons for not delving further into them. And his command of the astronomical arguments is, of course, unmatched, being directly in his field of expertise.

I was one of the experts who advised him on the project and I got to read an advance draft and was very impressed with the result. Hence you’ll see my promotional blurb on the book’s cover. I wrote:

Well researched, scientifically reasoned, elegantly concise, this book will long be required reading on the ‘Star of Bethlehem’. Full of fascinating historical facts, and better informed and more careful than any other book on the subject, this should be on the shelf of everyone interested in that legendary celestial event.

True that. His bibliography alone is of great value. Scientists will find the book especially heartwarming. Historians will as well. It even taught me a few things. In the foreword by astronomer and science writer Bob Berman, for example, I learned something I hadn’t even thought of, an example of Christianity seeping its way even into popular astronomy education. Berman writes…

[The Star of Bethlehem] has been a staple of holiday planetarium shows since the 1930s…[and my] very first column, published in Discover in December 1989, was a two-page spread about the Star of Bethlehem. Basically I summarized the various “explanations” shown to the public during planetariums’ annual “Star of Wonder” shows, then noted that Planetarium Directors–I’d interviewed quite a few–were well aware that each was impossible. Nonetheless, the shows remain popular, and have become such a tradition in and of themselves that no one seems bothered by such make-believe science being annually offered to the public.

Indeed.

Beyond that, however, I find this book of value not just because it will teach you a lot of cool things about history and astronomy with an economy of words, nor only because it has a great bibliography and is the go-to resource now for discussing this subject, but also because in the process of addressing astrological theories of the Star account, Adair deftly demonstrates a point I had long made myself but never had the time to demonstrate: ancient astrology was so wildly inconsistent and diverse that any astrological theory of either Christian origins or biblical accounts is probably beyond any possibility of demonstrating.

And this is relevant to the historicity debate. Not because proving the star account was a wholesale myth (and was inspired by no actual natural or supernatural event), as Adair does, entails or even implies Jesus didn’t exist (a historical man can have such myths spun around him easily enough), but because it shows why every Jesus mythicist who attempts to make an astrotheological argument for the origins of Christianity and (especially) the construction of the Gospels is just engaging in a Rorschach inkblot test. There was no consistent symbolism or system of allusions in ancient astrology, so any attempt to use one (or cobble one together) is just another multiple comparisons fallacy run amok.

That doesn’t mean astrotheological theories are necessarily false. But it does mean none can be proved even probable on present evidence, so the whole attempt should be abandoned.

To understand why, Adair’s book is a must-read. And that’s on top of all the other reasons I’ve summarized. So if any of this is your thing, check it out!

The Moral Truth Debate: Babinski & Shook

I’ve been sent two links of responses to my article last week, “What Exactly Is Objective Moral Truth?” Technically they are responses to Harris. But insofar as I am defending the same core thesis, and the links were sent to me, and both are by authors whose opinions I respect (even if I don’t always agree with them), they warrant a response here. These responses I think should be read by everyone, since they are common mistakes and misunderstandings, and my responses will clarify things you might need clarified…especially in the closing epilogue of this post.

First of the replies is Ed Babinski, who posted his own entry for the Harris contest on Facebook. Second is John Shook, who posted a reply on his blog at CFI.

In both cases, I must first reiterate the whole gist of my article:

One reason Harris is not the best one to use as your straw man in this debate is that doing that is lazy. It allows talking past each other far too easily. To avoid that I created a formal deductive proof of his core thesis (all the way back in 2011…and that was in development well before that, even before I read his book or even knew he was writing it–which means it is only a proof of “his thesis” in retrospect, since I had been developing the same thesis independently since 2004). What I asked people to do is find a logical invalidity or a non-demonstrable premise in my syllogism. Because that will prevent vagueries and misunderstandings and get right to the heart of who is correct. To do that, I told everyone to read my chapter “Moral Facts Naturally Exist” in The End of Christianity (indeed I said in last week’s article, quote, “the syllogisms you have to prove invalid or unsound are on pp. 359-64″). Hereafter I shall refer to that as TEC.

To keep avoiding this is to just lazily act like armchair problem solvers who can’t be bothered to actually look up the best version of the argument they are criticizing. Stop that. No more straw man fallacies. Address the best and most rigorous form of the argument. And do it correctly, i.e., actually identify an actual fallacy in those syllogisms or identify a premise in them that is false (or which you can prove we do not know is true).

Apart from simply not doing that (which is the biggest flaw in these replies, reducing them both to a classic straw man fallacy), here is also what’s wrong with the Babinski and Shook rebuttals… [Read more...]

What Exactly Is Objective Moral Truth?

Sam Harris has a contest on. “Anyone who believes that my case for a scientific understanding of morality is mistaken is invited to prove it in 1,000 words or less.” The best essay (as judged by Harris opponent and atheist philosopher Russell Blackford) will win $2,000 (and be published on Harris’s personal website). “You must refute the central argument of the book—not peripheral issues.” If any such essay actually changes Sam Harris’s mind, they will win not just $2,000 but $20,000 (and Harris will publicly recant his view).

Ophelia Benson has been critical of this contest (see A Losing Lottery Ticket, Sam Has to Presume a Great Big Ought, and a guest post from a commenter Why the Is/Ought Problem Matters). His own contest page (The Moral Landscape Challenge) has an important FAQ (a must read for any contenders). I actually am behind Harris’s program (I think his core thesis is correct, and I think Benson is wrong to say it is not), but I am not very impressed with Harris’s ability to defend or articulate it.

I had even greater problems with Michael Shermer’s attempt to defend the same core thesis Harris does, and I have commented before on how he was simply destroyed by his opponent, philosopher Massimo Pigliucci, even though I think Pigliucci is ultimately wrong and Shermer ultimately right (see Shermer vs. Pigliucci on Moral Science). I expect Harris will get similarly pwned. And that’s sad. Because it hurts their cause. They just aren’t the best defenders of this idea. And they should admit that and stop trying to be lone wolfs and look for and work with expert collaborators. There are several real, even renowned, philosophers who have been defending the same core thesis for years. Harris did not come up with anything fundamentally new here, and they have far more skill and experience dealing with the rigorous philosophical requirements of this debate.

Below I will explain what is wrong with Harris’s contest so far (and why it is not what Benson is concerned about); why what Benson has been saying is incorrect (and misses the point of Harris’ actual core thesis); and how (again) science can actually take over moral philosophy the same way it has done the theory of life (in the science of biology) and the universe (in the sciences of physics, astrophysics, and cosmology) and man and society (in the sciences of anthropology and sociology) and of mind (in psychology, neurophysiology, and cognitive science). [Read more...]

Ten Years to the Robot Apocalypse

Counting down. Soon we shall all be doomed.

Okay, I wrote this on the plane to Alabama about a month ago. It’s been languishing in my queue until now. So step back in time. I’m presently five miles above the earth hurtling through space in a giant metal bullet at hundreds of miles an hour. Earlier I was reading Science News (an old issue from last year; I’m behind) while waiting on the tarmac for takeoff. Got to the article on Eureqa, the “robot scientist” that can discover the laws of nature all on its own, just from looking at and experimenting with data. I was reminded of an earlier article a few years ago on the Lipson-Zykov experiment (mentioned in a sidebar). Then I caught another just recently, about Spaun (yeah, I’ve been reading Science News out of order). Spaun is a neural-net computer program that makes decisions like a person: it thinks, memorizes, solves problems, gambles, etc. All these developments, in the span of just a couple of years. Had some thoughts… [Read more...]

Shermer vs. Pigliucci on Moral Science

Ophelia Benson summarized Michael Shermer’s latest foot-in-mouth in his row with Massimo Pigliucci over whether and to what degree moral philosophy should become a moral science instead. Reading their exchange, I find Shermer is more inclined toward ideological biases and superficial worldview declarations than actual, sound, self-critical, well-thought analyses in this matter.

As a result, Shermer is doing a really awful job of defending what I actually agree with: that it’s high time moral philosophy began to be folded into the sciences (the same way philosophy of mind became psychology and cognitive science, for example). And that’s annoying. It’s like when awful Jesus myth theorists make it harder for me to argue that Jesus might not have existed after all, by their constantly using terrible arguments that then get falsely imputed to me. My case then gets judged by their failures. I now worry the same will happen here. So let me try to nip that in the bud.

The General Point

Pigliucci already exposes Shermer’s lack of understanding in this latest matter generally, so I won’t rehash all that. [Read more...]

Bad Science Proves Demigods Exist!

Scientists prove Beowulf and the Iliad are true stories! Not. Sometimes scientists can be so clueless, you just want to pat them on the head and go “Aw, that’s so sad.” To get up to speed on this new silliness, check out John Bohannon’s article for Science Now: Is Mythology Like Facebook?, which summarizes this scientific paper: Ralph Kenna and Pádraig Mac Carron, “Universal Properties of Mythological Networks,” Europhysics Letters 99.2 (July 2012) #28002. To be fair, they only claim to have evidence “the societies” and “some of the events” in them are true, not the entire stories as wrote. But really they don’t.

Kenna and Mac Carron mapped out the social networks in three myths (Beowulf, the Iliad, and the Táin, a lesser-known Irish epic) and tested those networks for the properties of real networks. Then they used as “controls” four works of modern fiction (Les Misérables, Shakespeare’s Richard III, The Fellowship of the Ring, and the first book in the Harry Potter series). (If you are noticing a fatal flaw here already, you get ten bonus points. Fifty points if you already notice more than one fatal flaw.)

Facebook is a real network that’s been well-studied this way (hence the title of Bohannon’s article). And real networks have certain properties. As Bohannon explains: [Read more...]

Musical Aesthetics

It’s been two years since I updated my blogging on music, but alas it’s finally time to get up to speed! I promised I’d get around to it in my inaugural post here last year, where I listed my best and favorite blogs from my previous blogspot (which I still maintain, frozen in time), all except my blogging on music, which I said I’d get to later. Well, here it is. The latest in musical science, philosophy, and likes. I’ll brief the “boring” stuff (philosophy and science) and then get into my latest musical playlist and how it confirms my previously-blogged theory that we live in a “postmusical age” (a phrase that doesn’t mean what you think). Ready? Here we go… [Read more...]

20 Questions

Are there “20 Questions Atheists Struggle to Answer” ? I was asked how I respond to Peter Saunders’ claim that there are, and how I would respond to those questions. According to God’s Advocate, Saunders thinks “there have not been any decent responses to [these twenty questions] in the past 40yrs,” but evidently he isn’t bothering to read any of the best answers available or even to find out what they are. The questions themselves are pretty much boiler plate, and consist mostly of fallacious loaded questions that ignore the established science behind nearly every one. I noticed that my work over the years has answered every one, except a few that are so lame I really can’t believe he thinks they need a better answer than science has already provided (at least with respect to whether atheism is true–I think science can always know or learn more about anything, but at a certain point you know enough to know God is not involved in whatever it is).

So here are my answers to his twenty questions… [Read more...]

The Lame That Would Not Die!

What is The Lame? Unfortunately no one can be told what The Lame is. You have to see it for yourself. No, just kidding. It’s the claim that “Science Requires a Christian Worldview.” JT just blogged that, responding reasonably enough to a repeat of a standard Christian apologetic shibboleth (and, as he callously and shamelessly threatened therein, did indeed email me the link in question as if to annoy me, like the gangster cad that we all know he is; for shame). I realized I should probably collect a resource list of all I’ve written in refutation of it. This is that list.

First, I pretty much kick the legs out from under it with the extensive historical argument (since non-Christians invented science, and that centuries before Christianity even existed, obviously science does not require a Christian worldview) in “Christianity Was Not Responsible for Modern Science,” The Christian Delusion (2010), pp. 396-420. You really don’t have to read anything else on the subject, frankly.

Second, I refute one component of the philosophical case, the claim that the universe must have been designed to be understood or the human brain designed to understand it, in “Neither Life Nor the Universe Appear Intelligently Designed,” The End of Christianity (2011), pp. 279-304 (key pages: pp. 298-302). That’s a short but compact and effective refutation, with references.

Third, I take on the entire Argument from Reason (which is a kind of umbrella argument that includes the claim that science only makes sense if Christianity is true, by arguing that reason would not exist but for God) in an extensive philosophical critique of Victor Reppert’s Argument from Reason. But the most pertinent sections of that are my refutation of the original version of the “Science Needs Christianity” argument from (Surprise!) C.S. Lewis. Those are the sections on where the “Five Axioms of Science” came from, and preceding that, on why “Our Mind Is Reliable Enough for Inductive Logic to Work.” And following both, I refute the more general claim that “Only Theists Can Invent Science” (although I give an even clearer answer to that in the Christian Delusion chapter, item 1 above).

Fourth, I have refuted the claim that the mathematical nature of the universe entails it was intelligently designed, in my critiques of Steiner and Howell. But of those, my refutation of Steiner (Fundamental Flaws) is less fun to read than my refutation of Howell (Our Mathematical Universe), in which I refute Howell’s attempt to rehabilitate Steiner; and really, if you’ve read the latter, you don’t need so much to read the former (unless you are really geeking out on the ontology of scientific theories, which is totally cool if you are).

Now you can add to all that JT’s response, which covers a lot of the most common sense rebuttals. The only weakness of which is that he doesn’t give the best response to the claim that “the atheist worldview cannot account for the uniformity of nature on which to base the scientific process.” He rightly points out that an argument from ignorance is a fallacy, and that Christians don’t really believe in the uniformity of nature (remember those miracles they keep going on about?), and if anyone is going to suss this, it’s going to be actual cosmological scientists, not hack armchair theologians.

But there is one argument one can make that kind of dodges those otherwise obvious points: the evidence e is “the uniformity of nature,” and the explanation h “God made it that way” makes e highly probable whereas one might suppose ~h “a god did not make it that way” does not make e highly probable, therefore e is an argument for god. Not that this must be a conclusive argument; having evidence for something is not the same as that something being true. For example, you can have evidence for someone committing a crime that in fact they didn’t commit–like fingerprints on a murder weapon, which could have gotten there in other ways besides having used it to kill the vic. But still.

The real problem is that ~h is a stand-in for all other theories of the evidence. Because h and ~h together must include all logically possible explanations of the evidence. And since h is only one of them (“God did it”); then necessarily ~h contains all other explanations. Many of which do make e highly probable. We don’t have to pick one, either. We can say “I can think up ten different explanations, other than God, which all guarantee that e will obtain” (for ten such examples see below). And if those all have a higher prior probability than “God did it,” then God is no longer the better explanation. In fact, it then becomes one of the worst. Note that we don’t have to know or even claim that any of those explanations is true. It’s still the case that more probably one of them is true, than that h is true, regardless.

I outline several of these possible explanations in Sense and Goodness without God (especially in section III.3 on “The Nature and Origin of the Universe,” pp.  71-96, and most especially, pp. 86-88), and all of them are more plausible than “God did it,” which means, all have a higher prior probability, because all of them are based on established precedents or simpler assumptions (on this point in general see my End of Christianity chapter again, item 2 above, pp. 282-84). Accordingly, I’ll count this as my fifth listed resource.

So there you have it. A complete kit for battling The Lame.

Why The Week Rocks

I hate magazines and never read them. Except all the magazines that I read.

I say that only because the magazines I read would be considered (by many avid magazine readers) as weird. This includes trade mags that most of you would find terribly dull but that keep me up to speed on things in my field (Historically Speaking often touches on questions of historical method across historical disciplines, as well as forums on hot debates in those fields; Isis is the definitive review periodical for books in the history of science, one of those things that other fields of history annoyingly don’t have; and so on). But it also includes periodicals I think everyone should read–including Skeptic and Skeptical Inquirer, but even more importantly (IMO), Science News and The Week. Something really awesome in that last got me to blogging today, which I’ll be getting at presently; but let me digress a bit on SN first.

Science News is a must because all other media do not report science correctly. Not only do they miss 99% of the important stories in scientific and technological progress. But the 1% they do report on, they get entirely wrong, almost all the time. Compare a science story in a mainstream source, with the coverage of the same discovery in Science News, and you’ll often be so appalled you will never get your science news from anywhere else again. Plus you get all those other stories you should be hearing. Isn’t the state of scientific progress across all fields one of the most important things to keep up with? As a citizen, and as a philosopher, it’s absolutely essential. Plus, you know, all those other reasons (e.g., in case you didn’t get the memo, ascience is hella cool).

But the biggest benefit is that if you read Science News for years (or, as in my case, decades), you learn tons and tons of shit about science you never would have otherwise, from field-specific knowledge and terminology, to all kinds of “consilience” stuff, like realizing the connections between everyday materials science and basic physics, or between biology and psychology, or what it really takes for cybernetics to work, or AI, or computer models of the Big Bang, and so on (also, if I don’t understand something in it, like a word or concept, I google around until I do, and being spurred to do that weekly has been a huge benefit to my intellectual development and understanding). Plus SN reminds you that religion doesn’t ever do this. That is, produce enough real advances in human knowledge every week to fill an entire magazine consistently for going on nearly a century now (and you know it won’t cease). The more you read Science News, the more religion looks decisively lame.

But my favorite magazine of all is the weekly The Week. I tried my hand at news weeklies before, and they all suck devil dicks. (That’s slang for wicked awful. Alright, yes, I just made it up. And yes, I should have said greasy devil dicks, in homage to Brian Flemming’s infamous question to me in The God Who Wasn’t There). For a classic example of my profound annoyance at U.S. News & World Report, for example, see my thrashing of it on the subject of love science in Sense and Goodness without God III.10.3, pp. 197-202. (And, hey, that combines my point above about shitty mainstream science news reporting, too! Two birds.) But The Week is different. So different. Radically different. Unparalleled, that kind of different. Better even than Brill’s Content (for those few who ever knew what that was, which I would love to see someone bring back again, at least in concept).

What is The Week? Basically, it’s like a 40-page weekly for-profit RSS feed for worldwide print media. You get one every week (it comes to your doorstep in paper, unless you get the electronic version), and it summarizes all the big stories in newspapers in the U.S. and abroad. It’s the “and abroad” part that’s especially cool. But even the U.S. part is something, because they summarize stories by summarizing sometimes several articles across several periodicals of different political bent, and they do it in half a page or even a quarter of a page or less, plus a ton of quick story summaries of a single paragraph taken from state and municipal papers across the nation and the world. And it’s brilliantly written, when you consider what they are doing here. So you don’t have to read tens of thousands of words to get the gist of what was said across the country on diverse topics by people from diverse perspectives–and in foreign newspapers even. Curious what Nigerian newspapers are saying about the U.S. presidential debates? Or about their own internal politics? What about what Iranian newspapers are saying about the assassinations of their own nuclear scientists? Or what Chinese newspapers are saying about the shift in focus of U.S. military policy to the Pacific (in case you didn’t notice that, BTW; it’s not like U.S. media cover shit we actually want to know). Then read The Week.

The effect of avidly reading The Week is the same as Science News, only it’s history-in-the-making, and world politics and cultures, that you are learning about. All kinds of stuff about, that you would never have learned otherwise. And in the same ways, e.g., you might google something talked about in an article to learn more about it; and multiply that by thousands of items a year, and the benefit to broadening your mind is priceless. And so on. Case in point (and this is what inspired me to write this blog today): Feb. 10 issue (I’m behind a bit; tends to happen), page 14, “Best Columns: International” feature, bottom fifth of the page, “Turkey.” It summarizes an article in the Turkish newspaper Hürriyet by Mustafa Akyol.

I’ll just quote it outright (with some stuff snipped for space):

Newt Gingrich professes to revere modern Turkey’s founding father, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk…He has frequently written about Atatürk and held him up as a model statesman, to the point where the Atatürk Society of America gave Gingrich an award in 2006 in “commemoration of his contribution to publicizing Atatürk’s legacy.” But does the Republican presidential hopeful really understand that legacy? Atatürk was “the greatest and the strictest secularist” in our entire region…[creating] a state free of religious interference, even banning religious garb in the workplace. In the U.S., Gingrich considers secularism “a nightmare” and an abomination. “A country that has been, since 1963, relentlessly in the courts driving God out of public life shouldn’t be surprised at all the problems we have,” Gingrich says … and [he says] “anti-religious bigotry” is responsible for a decline in American morals. So how can Gingrich hold up as a hero the “militantly secular founder of a European one-party state?” The answer can only be that he favors secularism not for Christians but for Muslims, as a bulwark against what he sees as “creeping sharia.” The “obvious double standard” puts the lie to Gingrich’s claims of being an intellectual.

Ouch. But, yeah. “You are correct, sir!”

Now, I actually knew a lot already about the history of Turkey and its atheist national hero Mustafa Kemal Atatürk; but suppose you didn’t…you would have learned something cool here, plus you might have googled to learn more, and really learned something cool here. So think of what you might learn from other columns, week in and week out. Right above this article, for instance, is an article from Russia about the epidemic of teen suicide there and its relation to horrific flaws in the Russian healthcare system; above that, a panoply of columns from India are summarized regarding the Golden Temple flap (you may be surprised by what Indians are actually saying about that).

And case in point…I didn’t know any of this about Newt Gingrich! I mean, I knew he was a racist douchebag. But just when you thought you’d plumbed the depths of his hypocrisy… Comedian David Cross once quipped about how it pisses him off that he has to read “other countries’ fucking newspapers” to learn about shit happening in his own country. Well, touché, David. Touché.

Subscribe to The Week, people.

(And incredibly, they did not pay me to say that!)