Show Your Support for Atheists in the Military!

Rock Beyond Belief is this weekend, the first ever atheist rally on a military base, in response to all the Evangelical rallies on military bases. It’s common for atheist groups to be banned from military facilities; Christians can have clubs and meet on base, atheists can’t. This is just one of many ways atheists are discriminated against in the military. If you want that to change, one thing you can do is show up to be counted at this weekend’s rally. A large show of numbers will demonstrate that atheists have support and clout and aren’t just a tiny fringe group they can stomp on and ignore. It’s at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, Saturday (31 March 2012) from noon to 8:30pm. Directions, how to get in, and everything you need to know is on the event’s website (linked above). And it’s free to all. You do not have to be military to go.

As a veteran myself, I’ve blogged about the importance of supporting atheists in the military before (veterans and active duty should all join the MAAF: see my blog Atheists in Foxholes). The military is pretty much the last place where the government freely and openly treats atheists as second class citizens, and violates the separation of church & state regularly by giving unqualified support to Christian movements, activities and organizations. It’s all a bit scary really. I know posting about this just a few days before the event may seem a bit last minute, but the organizers asked for one final push to make sure as many people show as we can get, and I’m happy to oblige. Make the time, make the last minute arrangements, visit even for a little bit. If you can. And maybe it will make a difference.

McGrath on the Amazing Infallible Ehrman

James McGrath responded to my reply to Ehrman’s intemperate and badly worded assault on the theory that Jesus was mythical (McGrath: Responding to Richard Carrier’s Response to Bart Ehrman), and as such represents exactly what is wrong with defenders of historicity: carelessness, post hoc rationalization, and factual error. I shall examine these flaws in detail, because they are important: they demonstrate how bankrupt historicity is as a position (or at least “unyielding” historicity…a historicist who allowed for the possibility of myth is a creature I rarely meet).

McGrath’s overall thesis he asserts in his conclusion: “Ehrman did not make mistakes in his piece.” Except that he did. In every respect I documented. McGrath actually couldn’t refute that (not in one single instance did McGrath even purport to correct any factual claim in my post), so he has to try other tactics to get a success out of a fail.

Making Excuses

McGrath begins by trying to make excuses for the atrociously inaccurate wording of Ehrman’s article by claiming the editors did it, and that this is normal. That is simply false. I have written for numerous periodicals as well as other websites as guests, and always I am given a proof and asked to correct any errors in it. Consistently, they correct any errors I say there are, including confusions of wording. And I have never had an editor edit my wording so egregiously as McGrath’s argument requires (the only thing that comes close is a religious organization “editing” an essay of mine without my consent). It is in fact a fundamental requirement of journalistic ethics to ensure that an article accurately represents the true thoughts of the author. My publishers have always been very concerned with this, and with making sure I fully approve of what posts.

Here at Freethought Blogs we have several contributors to The Huffington Post, and they actually tell me that HuffPo editors do little to no editing, in fact only reinforcing standards and practices and correcting for typos and suggesting improvements for readability. They don’t rewrite your articles. They certainly don’t rewrite them and publish them without even consulting you as to the accuracy or acceptability of the result first. As our own Chris Rodda told me by email:

I’ve been a blogger on HuffPost for nearly four years, and they have almost never edited any piece that I’ve written, and on the rare occasions when they did they were very minor edits (grammar and spelling corrections, breaking up long sentences, etc.). Out of all the many, many pieces I’ve written there, there was only one where the editors wanted to make any significant changes, and in that case they contacted me first and sent me a draft of their proposed changes for my approval prior to publishing the piece. So I do not believe for a minute that HuffPost would edit anyone’s piece in the way they’re being accused of.

That McGrath would attempt such an absurd and bogus defense suggests that he, too, is very worried about how badly worded and inaccurate Ehrman’s article is, but can’t bring himself to admit it. I have to wonder why.

Wait, What Was That about Academic Freedom Again?

McGrath says my post will only persuade mythicists, and thus completely dismisses my defense of the principles of academic freedom. It is most strange that McGrath says nothing in favor of academic freedom, not even to insist he supports it and wouldn’t dare think of doing the things Ehrman’s post intimates their industry does or would do to suppress it, not even to agree that it is inappropriate to ridicule and assault the character of qualified peers in an attempt to intimidate others from supporting them. In short, he doesn’t even acknowledge that historicists ought to agree with everything I said about that. No, my defense of academic freedom “will only carry weight with people who desperately want there not to have been a historical Jesus.” That’s disturbing. Particularly as it actually proves everything I said. Thanks, James McGrath.

Wait, Why Does the Order of Evidence Matter Again?

McGrath then launches into a rebuttal to my remarks on the evidence. The weirdest thing about this is not that he tries the fallacy of “poisoning the well” (and that the very first thing he does, which is indeed a recognized tactic: it’s exactly how a dishonest opponent is supposed to use that fallacy! Nice, James McGrath) by intimating that I am engaging in the nefarious and dishonest “tactics” of the crank mythicists (and thereby implying I am no different than them, as if my methods and motives and qualifications were no better). No, the weirdest thing is that he turns a logical order of discussion into evidence of evil nefarious purposes:

Carrier engages in a common mythicist tactic also used by promoters of other forms of pseudoscholarship: begin with the less strong evidence and sow doubt, in the hope that when you get to the stronger evidence, your audience will be inclined to accept your implausible dismissal of it. Carrier describes as “Ehrman’s only evidence” Paul’s reference in Galatians to having met “James the brother of the Lord.”

What he means to say is that the James passage is his strongest evidence (I appreciate his admitting this, because it helps my point), and so I put that last, and lead with the other stuff, to “sow doubt.” (“Sowing doubt” meaning what anyone else would call arguing a case.) Rather than the actual reason I did that, which was to hold off the longest digression and the most disputed question until the end, so I could wrap up the easy stuff first and keep readers engaged. It is a perfectly logical sequence to address the clear points first, then close with the strongest point of debate. Instead of acknowledge that, he uses my ability to organize essays as evidence of my evil (and therefore disreputable) intentions. This dastardly scholar is trying to corrupt your mind with a wicked use of logical order.

The irony is, this is the kind of tactic I’d expect from a fringe myther. McGrath, like Ehrman, has become the very thing they despise: a logic-dismissing conspiracy theorist. I will get back to this James thing. Once again, last.

Wait, Why is Being a Roman Author Relevant Again?

McGrath amusingly argues that Ehrman made no mistakes, then assiduously attempts to explain all his mistakes (so, which is it, did he make mistakes that require an explanation, or is everything he said unmistaken?). For example, McGrath astonishingly attempts this defense of Ehrman:

Ehrman points out that Roman sources do not mention Pontius Pilate. Presumably he does not mean writers of the Roman era, but Roman authors in the strict sense, since there is no way that Ehrman could possibly be unaware that Philo and Josephus made reference to Pilate.

But Pilate references Pilate. Pilate is a Roman source. So, fail. But that’s not even the most pertinent point: the distinction McGrath is attempting here makes absolutely no sense in the context of Ehrman’s argument. What does it matter whether a source is Roman or not? A source is a source. Ehrman gives no explanation of why someone being a Roman matters to his point–nor could he have, since it doesn’t, and never logically could. It’s just worse that in fact Philo and Josephus were Romans (Josephus was certainly a Roman citizen and lived in Rome itself for part of his life; and, as I explained in my article, Philo was almost certainly a Roman citizen as well). So is McGrath saying Jews can’t be Romans? That would seem to mean Jews can’t be Americans, either. And even if such a strange thing were true, it would again be irrelevant. Yes, Philo and Josephus were not descended from Italians nor native speakers of Latin…so? McGrath’s whole argument here is fantastically illogical, and reeks of desperation. The more so as it ignores the fact that Pilate is descended from Italians and a native speaker of Latin (and a Roman government official), and he attests his own existence as an eyewitness thereto, by one of the best pieces of evidence historians of antiquity can ever have.

McGrath just can’t bring himself to admit that Ehrman so badly miswrote that he stated in a public article that will be read by millions of people a factually false claim. I agree that is not a lie or evidence of ignorance. It’s just terrible, terrible, terrible writing. Which is just as incompetent, just as careless, and just as warranting a correction.

Wait, What Was That about Only Officials Erecting Inscriptions?

McGrath betrays his ignorance and incompetence as a historian of antiquity with his next monstrous foot-in-mouth gaffe:

Carrier’s mention of inscriptions leaves off the obvious reason why we have no inscriptions referring to Jesus: prefects and procurators and governors and kings made inscriptions, as did other public functionaries. When, where, and why would a figure like Jesus have made an inscription, or had one made that referred to him? Mythicists regularly and frustratingly fail to compare like with like.

I nearly fell out of my chair when I read that. (And not because I didn’t say Jesus would erect an inscription; read my article again, James.) McGrath’s claim about who erected inscriptions in antiquity is false. Now, it is bad enough that McGrath didn’t know that. What makes him incompetent is not his ignorance, though, but the fact that it didn’t even occur to him to check this claim before making it. This is a classic example of a very error many mythicists make that annoys McGrath, yet here he is, doing the exact same thing.

Okay. Epigraphy 101: Who erected inscriptions in antiquity? Nearly every kind of person with money. Yes, government people and public functionaries erected inscriptions. But the vast majority of ancient inscriptions were made by private citizens. Not just in graveyards, either. But we do have those, tens of thousands of funerary epitaphs, by all manner of not just wealthy but also middle class folk, celebrating their freedom from slavery or their profession or even, in many cases, their philosophy or religion. But leave those aside; I’ll also exclude graffiti; or marks on tombs or ossuaries (as the Jesus Tomb nuts…notably, historicists, not mythicists…keep claiming we have for Jesus). Even after leaving all those out, we still have inscriptions by practitioners of nearly every major religion in antiquity: pick your god, there is probably an inscription somewhere, by someone, celebrating them (the inscriptions attesting the miracles at Epidaurus, commissioned by those healed there, is just the most famous example; but we have thousands of inscriptions by Mithraists, and likewise by those of other cults, including Jews, e.g. the Revelation of Gabriel is one of those most recently discovered, and is an example of precisely the kind of thing we have from a fringe Jewish cult that we don’t have from Christianity); we also have inscriptions by philosophy enthusiasts, celebrating and broadcasting their philosophy to the public (something you’d think Christians were most keen to do, being evangelistic missionaries and all).

To give you just three pertinent examples (of dozens I could discuss):

(1) Diogenes of Oenoanda, a private citizen, commissioned a massive public inscription detailing his salvific philosophy for the good of mankind, declaring as its purpose “to help those who come after us” by publicizing “the remedies of salvation.” This was an Epicurean, who didn’t even believe in an afterlife or a coming end of the world to warn people about, yet he spent his own money to publish his gospel. Obviously Christians would be unable to do this in Judea, but they would have been free to in pagan cities for at least two centuries (contrary to the usual claims, Christianity was not actually outlawed and was rarely persecuted by Romans, as Acts routinely demonstrates and as we can tell even from Tacitus’ account, in which Christians had to be accused of arson to finally prosecute them; see Not the Impossible Faith, ch. 8, pp. 219-20).

They never erected any, for at least two centuries. Well, except heretics: evidently a Valentinian in the late second century finally got around to it. But no one else? Never for a hundred and fifty years? (I shouldn’t have to remind you that that latter inscription is a direct refutation of McGrath’s generalization that no Christians would ever do this. How is it that he didn’t hear of it? It was quite a big news item in our field last year.) And please, let’s not hear fallacious rebuttals to the Diogenes example (e.g. don’t tell me a Christian inscription was unlikely to be as elaborate and expensive as that of Diogenes; I am not saying it would be). And again, please, don’t ignore what I already said about this (in my original post I already listed reasons why such an inscription might not have been commissioned; that it “definitely would be” is not what I’m saying).

(2) We have an inscription (at Lanuvium, Italy) stating the rules of a private dinner club; these were religious associations that represent one of the models that early Christianity followed (and which they could even have done legally, had they wanted), in which members would have their burials charitably assured by their membership (among other charitable aims from the pooling of member resources), and in which they often shared fictive kinship (they were brethren), and shared communion in the form of regular divine meals (often of fish, bread, and wine) in celebration of a savior god. The Lanuvium inscription preserves the rules of order for one of these, which notably reflect some of the same concerns Paul faced with his dinner clubs (those rowdy Christian eucharist parties: see 1 Corinthians 11:16-34), and for which Paul voiced some of the same solutions, which (like at Lanuvium) must only have become more elaborate and codified over subsequent decades.

No Christians, in a hundred years of practicing, across seventy or more churches, ever once thought to write up their rules on a house wall, like pagan dinner clubs had? Nor even so much as to carve or scrawl “Jesus is Lord” on anything, anywhere? Note that I did not say we should necessarily expect them to; I listed many reasons why they might not have gotten around to it (and any such inscription would not have been as elaborate as at Lanuvium, which followed the law and sought a license to operate from the state, and so on, so I am not implying they would be identical, but that the same purpose would be served by minimally equivalent behavior). But for McGrath to give a reason they wouldn’t do this that is actually blatantly false (‘only state officials did that’) simply illustrates why historicists just aren’t thinking rationally, nor acting like careful scholars in this debate. Which tells you something about the merits of their position: it is more based on careless, irrational thinking than on careful, logical arguments.

(3) In chapter 4 of his excellent history of Christianity in its pagan context (Pagans and Christians, sadly out of print), Robin Lane Fox discusses an example of a private cult erecting an inscription to record the fact that they had recently been having a spate of revelations from God (and had consulted an oracle about it and were publishing its reply). This was in the city of Miletus; the cult was that of Demeter; and the celebrant who commissioned it was Alexandra, who was in a position similar to that of Peter: the inscription reads (in part) “Ever since she has taken on her priesthood” the “gods have been appearing in visitations as never before” either to or in the form of “girls and women, but also, men and children.” The inscription asks, “What does such a thing mean? Is it the sign of something good?” (the oracle’s answer was basically yes).

Here we have visions, seen as an exciting new event, being celebrated in stone. Christians could easily have done the same, erecting all manner of messages, in honor of their god, or to advertise their gospel, or to warn people to repent, and many other possible things. To suggest only “public functionaries” could do this is simply false. I have given talks in which I use two other examples illustrating the same point: a brief inscription by the wizard Harnouphis celebrating a “manifestation” he had experienced of the goddess Isis; and the Memnon inscriptions, where a famous moaning statue in Egypt became covered with privately-commissioned inscriptions celebrating each witness’s experience of the miracle (even dating when it happened).

Of course by the third century onward we have Christian inscriptions and artwork in the catacombs as yet another example. But they would not have been limited to that location or medium. To argue that private citizens and religious adherents didn’t erect inscriptions pertaining to their religions is simply ridiculous, and one of the most boner mistakes I’ve yet seen from someone claiming to know what he’s talking about.

Wait, What Does the Word “Have” Mean, Again?

McGrath attempts to salvage Ehrman’s disastrously misleading wordage by claiming it wasn’t misleading at all. Which would suggest McGrath is a lousy teacher, as anyone who instructs students or deals with the public would be appalled by Ehrman’s sloppy phrasing, knowing full well how misleading it would be, and how badly it will miseducate those who hear it said. McGrath says:

Carrier makes much of the statement “we have” but once again there is no sense in which Ehrman could reasonably be thought to be claiming that he has a copy of Q, for instance. His meaning is not ambiguous, nor is it mistaken.

Experts like McGrath and I know that “Ehrman could not reasonably be thought to be claiming that he has a copy of Q,” but all other readers of that article won’t know that. Exactly as I said originally: I am now going to be met with people for years and years who repeat to me that Ehrman said we have “multiple” Aramaic sources dating to the 30s A.D. That was a massively irresponsible way to word his sentence. McGrath won’t even admit that. Even though it was obvious to dozens of readers, as confirmed in comments on my blog and elsewhere. McGrath would never accept this kind of misstep from a mythicist. Nor would he accept his own excuse for it. So once again McGrath becomes the very thing he opposes.

Fact is, Ehrman’s wording is ambiguous. In fact, worse than, because it literally says what Ehrman did not mean to say. That’s not ambiguous; it’s false. The only saving grace is that Ehrman cannot have intended it that way. But that’s what makes his writing here atrocious to the extreme. What is actually ambiguous is the fact that it’s not even agreed that Q ever existed (likewise anything else he could have meant). Ehrman gives no hint whatsoever that that is true, but instead declares this source exists with absolute certainty and beyond any doubt. But it’s worse than that even, because, as I pointed out, Ehrman went on to declare that this non-existed document whose existence is still debated amounts to amazing proof of the historicity of Jesus, which is not in any possible sense a logically correct inference to make. Indeed, he even confidently declares that it dates within a “year or two” of Jesus! That is the exact kind of obfuscatory triumphalism McGrath loathes from the mythicists. But as soon as a historicist commits the same sin, now it’s not an error in even the slightest possible respect. See where this is going?

 Not Getting the Point

That covers most of McGrath’s failed attempt to rehabilitate Ehrman’s article. But before I get to the last item, I have to pause to discuss how McGrath routinely fails to get the point of what I’ve said. Here is a good example of what I mean…

He quotes me saying this:

The consequence of this is that you must accept that Philo’s silence argues against the existence of Jesus as depicted in the Gospels. One must therefore conclude the Gospels substantially fictionalize the story of Jesus. I don’t think Ehrman disagrees with that conclusion, but he loses sight of it in his attempt to mock the importance of this kind of evidence, the silence of external sources.

To which McGrath responds:

This is (apart from the very last clause, perhaps) a wonderful statement of the very point Ehrman is seeking to make, as Carrier seems to realize. Yet for some reason, Carrier aligns himself against Ehrman and mainstream scholarship even when articulating the evidence in favor of its conclusions.

Thus demonstrating he completely missed the point. He at least gets that I actually agree with Ehrman that silences are not alone sufficient to demonstrate Jesus didn’t exist (I have always made this point, for years now, and McGrath surely knows this). But my point here is that Ehrman’s dismissal of silences as irrelevant to any conclusion about historicity, by suggesting we would never have any attestation outside the Bible, throws the baby out with the bathwater. Ehrman is actually destroying the very argument McGrath is here trying to rehabilitate: that such silences are indeed significant. In precisely the way I state, and McGrath affirms: they argue “against the existence of Jesus as depicted in the Gospels” and we therefore must “conclude the Gospels substantially fictionalize the story of Jesus.” That conclusion does not follow if we accept what Ehrman says about silences in other sources. Do you see the problem? Ehrman is actually attacking the very premise of McGrath’s own argument. I do not believe Ehrman intended to do that, but in his intemperate zeal to mock arguments from silence, he didn’t even notice that he was attacking himself.

McGrath does stuff like this many times, painting me with the same brush as all mythicists, when in fact he knows better. For example, I completely agree with him that Christianity is far more a product of its Jewish roots than its pagan inspirations. I have said this repeatedly for years now, and again I know McGrath knows this. So why does he write as though he is schooling me on that point, when in fact I have been schooling mythicists on it myself? He also knows that I argue Paul got his commandments “from the Lord” directly, by revelation (and in my post that he is replying to, I gave examples and referenced passages proving this). Yet he argues Paul quotes Jesus, therefore proving Jesus exists (even though I devoted a whole paragraph in my post to why that is an invalid inference; McGrath says nothing in response to it).

McGrath likewise says “Ehrman is clearly correct that there was no expectation prior to the rise of Christianity that a Davidic Messiah – i.e. the one who would restore the kingdom to the line of David”  (a distinction Ehrman did not make; you see, like a biblical fundamentalist, McGrath has to correct his oracle before claiming it is infallible) “would be executed by the foreign empire ruling over the Jewish people,” but this ignores the argument I actually made, that nevertheless a messiah who would die to atone for the sins of Israel was expected by some Jews (McGrath doesn’t even mention this or interact with any of my evidence or argument for it). You can’t push that fact under the rug with yet another no-true-Scottsman fallacy.

The irony is that as soon as McGrath introduces this element (of the role of a Davidic messiah), he destroys Ehrman’s argument: because Christians did believe in Ehrman’s messiah in that sense…for Jesus was on his way to do exactly what Ehrman says all Jews expected a messiah to do: destroy the enemies of God and reestablish home rule. You see, McGrath confuses Ehrman’s argument that no one would countenance a dying messiah, with the argument that Christians didn’t believe in a militarily triumphant messiah. They obviously did. Thus, McGrath’s attempted revision of Ehrman’s argument fails, and it fails precisely because Ehrman was wrong about Jews not imaging this messiah could die first.

McGrath thus routinely misses the point.

Another boner example is what he finally does say about academic freedom:

Carrier doesn’t address whether he thinks people ought to be allowed to pursue young-earth creationist or intelligent design research in mainstream academic contexts. But his argument is one that proponents of those views have used to argue precisely that.

This is a false analogy (the evidence for evolution is vastly greater, billions of times greater, than that for historicity), but more importantly, it ignores what I said in some detail: McGrath is committing the very sin I labored to explain Ehrman was, that of confusing a theory with a method. Should professors be free to pursue “creationist or intelligent design research” using valid methods? Yes! It would be completely wrong to reject all works submitted to peer review just because they argued for ID, even when their facts are correct and their methodology sound. Likewise it would be wrong to fire them or otherwise persecute them because they did that. It’s just that that hasn’t happened yet. No one has produced a pro-ID argument based on correct facts and sound methodology.

Which brings us back to that false analogy thing. Creationists want an exception to be made that allows their fallacious methods and false claims equal respect; I do not want that for mythicism. I want mythicism to be treated equally with all other theories about Jesus, by the same standards of method and argument. Ehrman’s sin is in acting like that is a priori impossible and therefore all mythicism is creationism. He is therefore setting up an untouchable dogma, all who even contemplate questioning it be damned–literally, by every institutional means available; McGrath agrees with Ehrman on that, because he just said we should be treated like Creationists. Whereas I made the crucial distinction that bad methodologies warrant that treatment, not debatable theories; McGrath epically fails to get the point.

Yet another example is where I actually agree with McGrath, and again it is worth pointing out why, because it reveals how badly he misses the point. McGrath says “if one is willing to posit interpolations where the manuscript evidence does not show evidence of such interpolation, then one can draw any conclusion,” so we can’t rely on that. I agree (see my previous comment on this; although McGrath is wrong to say one must have manuscript evidence, as even mainstream textual critics like Ehrman accept non-manuscript evidence; I can only assume McGrath was being hyperbolic, as otherwise he should know this). I did not argue the evidence should be dismissed because it could be an interpolation; I said the evidence was shaky because it could be an interpolation. That is, the probability of it being one (even if low, it is not vanishingly low) makes resting one’s entire case for historicity on this one single use of two Greek words in a document collection known for harmonizing and dogmatic interpolations, should be alarming, and not grounds for inviolable certainty. McGrath doesn’t seem to understand the weight of that point. But as David Hacket Fischer demonstrated (in Historians’ Fallacies), historians tend to be logic challenged.

So I guess in ancient Rome, “Misser of Points” would be McGrath’s cognomen (I thereby dub him Iacobus Magrathius Amissoquaestio). In the same vein, McGrath also ignores maybe 90% of the things I said (facts, arguments, essential points). It’s always interesting to compare what a critic responds to, with what they ignore. It’s usually all the things that refute their claims and generalizations. Take a look for yourself: read his critique, then go back and read the article he is criticizing.

That leaves one last thing (that same thing I covered last the first time)

James the (Adopted/Biological?) Brother of the Lord

I argued that all Christians were “brothers of the Lord” because: (a) they were all adopted sons of God, (b) Jesus was an adopted son of God, and (c) that by definition made them all the adopted brothers of Jesus; and (d) Christians called each other brother, therefore they would have called each other brothers of Jesus, too. I also showed (e) that they believed Jesus had explicitly called them his brothers and (f) they explicitly said Jesus was only “the firstborn among many brethren.” Another important point I made is that Jesus became Lord at his adoption, so Christians would be brothers of the Lord specifically, a uniquely Christian concept (and one that could only have been uttered after the origins of Christianity; e.g., even if James was the biological brother of Jesus, he would never have been called “the brother of the Lord” until Christians invented that phrase for him).

McGrath does not challenge any of the above (which is fortunate, because it is all proved conclusively from passages in Paul, which I cited profusely). The argument then follows: all Christians were the brothers of the Lord; so it would be confusing to call James a brother of the Lord. Because which do you mean? The James who is the biological brother of the Lord, or the James who is the adopted brother of the Lord? And even if we can guess, why use the confusing phrase at all? Why would a phrase that was equally true of all Christians, ever be used to uniquely identify biological brothers? Christians would only do that if somehow they policed the phrase and prevented Christians from using it of themselves (even though it would be correctly used that way otherwise), and restricted it only to specify biology, and that somehow all Christians knew this (it’s ability to uniquely identify being the only point of Paul using the phrase at all, on the historicist thesis). Even though this goes against the Christian doctrine that all are equals, and no one has a special privilege from being biologically related to anyone.

I explored other possibilities, but McGrath is too easily distracted so I won’t reiterate those. He can only handle one argument at a time. So let’s do that. We have two theories: (1) that Paul is merely saying James is a Christian (hypothesis), because all Christians were brothers of the Lord (established fact) and (2) that Paul means to say James is a biological and not adopted brother of Jesus (hypothesis), because Christians policed the use of the phrase in such a way as to make that a practical way to indicate that distinction (not in evidence). The fact that (2) requires assuming something ad hoc, but (1) does not, makes (1) initially more probable than (2). To borrow McGrath’s own words, “the phrase is clear.” All Christians are brothers of the Lord, James is a brother of the Lord. You do the math. If we have to add to it something whose probability is not 100% (the assumption of policing behavior), the probability drops. For example, if that policing behavior has a 50% chance of being true, while Christians being the brothers of the Lord has a 100% chance of being true (as I proved it did), then P(1) = P x 1 and P(2) = P x 0.5. If we start without presuppositions, i.e. before examining any evidence in the case, (1) and (2) are equally likely. So if (2) is reduced by half, and (1) is not, (2) is initially half as likely as (1), so in total probability, the relatives priors for (1) and (2) are 0.67 and 0.33, respectively (if we assume no other theories have a significant prior probability). There is no getting around this. That is the logic of evidence.

Now, initially likely does not mean ultimately likely. We have to examine the remaining evidence. But there, if we reject the Gospels as myth (as well as much later legends), all we have are the letters of Paul. And nowhere in those letters does Paul mention Jesus having had specifically biological brothers. But he frequently talks about Jesus having adopted brothers: all Christians. That is exactly what we expect if (1) is true. But if (2) were true we would have some expectation the evidence would be different; it would not be a certainty, but there would be some probability that Paul would more clearly mention Jesus having biological kin. Therefore, the probability of the evidence we actually have on (2) is somewhat less than 100%. Let’s say it’s 90% (I’m just picking a number; it has to be something less than 1, the difference representing the probability that Paul would have mentioned this more clearly, in this arbitrary case I’m saying that probability is 10% or just 1 in 10). But the probability of the evidence we actually have on (1) is arguably 100% (or near enough). If we assume no other theories have a prior probability even near 1%, then this gives us a Bayesian result of P(2) = (.33 x .9) / [(.33 x .9) + (.67 x 1)] = .297 / (.297 + .67) = .297 / .967 = 0.31, only a 31% chance McGrath’s theory is correct, and a nearly 69% chance the mythicists are correct on this one. [And if we make a case that P(e|(1)) is less than 100%, as subsequent comments have attempted, then for this passage to be evidence for historicity, P(e|(1)) has to be less than 45%, but that’s when e includes all evidence pertaining to the case, not just what’s in Paul–and that’s assuming P(e|(2)) = 90%, which is already unreasonable, especially when e includes all evidence pertaining to the case, not just what’s in Paul.]

This is how James attempts to reply:

There is no evidence for any Jews in Paul’s time speaking of God having a brother, and so the most natural reference is to Jesus being the Lord here, as indeed Paul refers to him often with this title.

This doesn’t respond to anything I argued. I never said God had a brother, or that Lord meant God. I said Jesus is the Lord, and as such was the adopted son of God (not brother of God), and as such all Christians, who were also the adopted sons of God, were the brothers of Jesus (in his role as Lord). McGrath’s failure to even grasp my obvious point calls into question his ability to evaluate any arguments whatever.

Moving on…

Carrier then follows mythicists like Earl Doherty in trying to suggest that “brother(s) of” can mean the same thing as “brother(s) in.” But the two phrases are obviously distinct in meaning, and based on the evidence available, it was not the custom in this time to refer to Christians in general, or a specific subset of Christians, as “brothers of the Lord.”

McGrath is making things up here. There is no instance anywhere in Paul’s letters of him ever saying such a thing as “brothers in” anything (much less brothers “in the Lord” or in Christ or in Jesus; claims to the contrary notwithstanding). Yes, the two phrases are obviously distinct in meaning. Which is precisely why Paul would never use “brother in the Lord.” Christians were not brothers in the Lord, they were actually the brothers of the Lord.

McGrath seems to be confusing completely different phrases, that don’t relate here. See, for example, Romans 16:8-19, where Paul is describing the virtues of various brethren, but not once calling them by the appellation brother (or sister), except in verse 14, which conspicuously omits “in the Lord/Christ” despite that being commonly used in the other sentences. Notice how the meanings there don’t work the other way around: is Ampliatus Paul’s “beloved of the Lord”? No. Is Urbanus their “fellow-worker of Christ?” No. Is Apelles “the approved of Christ”? No. Are those in the household of Narcissus “of the Lord”? No. Do Tryphaena and Tryphosa and Persis “labor of the Lord”? No. Was Rufus “the chosen of the Lord”? No. In each case they are in the Lord (literally: see The Empty Tomb, pp. 144-47, e.g. Romans 8:1 and Romans 12:5 and 2 Cor. 5:17), or they are these things in respect to the Lord.

Let’s look at the very different case of kinship: are Christians only brothers in the Lord? No. That would mean they were all brothers of each other because they were physically in the body or care or bosom of the Lord (by having faith in the Lord: Gal. 3:25-29) but that they weren’t thereby the brothers of the Lord. Just as above: every time you are something because you are in Christ, this is because you are not that something of Christ. You do not share equality with Christ in that respect, you are simply a part of him. But this is not the case for kinship. Jesus calls Christians his brothers; Christians called Jesus the firstborn of many brethren; Christians regarded themselves as the adopted sons of God and regarded Jesus as also the adopted son of that same God. Thus all Christians were in fact the brothers of the Lord, not just brothers of each other in the Lord.

To suggest otherwise is to insist that Paul defied all conventions of the Greek language, all common sense, all literal truth as he understood it, and chose to avoid the natural expression “brother of” for some unexplained reason even when it was correct, without any evidence he ever did that, or would. McGrath somehow thinks that is a more natural way to read the text than what I just explained above. You decide.

It’s pretty clear to me. If the Lord said you were his brother, you were the brother of the Lord; why would it ever occur to any speaker of Greek to think or say otherwise? McGrath pulls the same stunt Ehrman did, and references on his behalf evidence that doesn’t exist: “it was not the custom in this time to refer to Christians in general, or a specific subset of Christians, as ‘brothers of the Lord’.” Custom of the time? Based on what? We only have the letters of Paul. How does McGrath know what the custom of the time was, except by reference to the letters of Paul? We can clearly infer from all the evidence I presented (notice all the verses I listed; McGrath lists not one) that this was in fact the custom of the time; and the evidence shows Christians were all called brothers, and believed themselves to be the brother of Christ, and the one thing that would distinguish their brotherhood from any others, was that they were his brothers. In fact Paul twice refers to Christians as “brothers of the Lord,” unless McGrath circularly assumes he doesn’t.

Thus, circular arguments, and generalizations based on no evidence, purporting to know the contents of sources we don’t have, to arrive at a conclusion contrary to obvious logic. That’s bad argument 101. This is what historicists attempt to stand on. And they are surprised they are losing clout with their audience?

[Ironically, amateurs have suggested better counter-arguments here than McGrath, although those also fail: see my comments on stylistic usage, generic usage, and objective reading]

The Succinct Conclusion

The irony is that, when we consider everything I examined above, McGrath proves he is the one who “is clearly and unambiguously trying to make a case for a predetermined conviction, not follow the evidence where it leads” (his own words, fallacious projected onto me, when they clearly describe himself…and Freud is smiling in his grave).

Hitler in San Francisco

I was asked to reprise my January talk about my work on the origins of Hitler’s Table Talk and exposing the (so far only) English translation of it as hopelessly unfaithful to the original German, this time in San Francisco, for the AASF. I will summarize key elements of my study on this which was published in German Studies Review many years ago. This book is especially infamous as a source of those “anti-Christian” quotes from Hitler you see bandied about. My talk on this was well received in Walnut Creek, so it’s a delight to be able to again. Full details are available on the AASF Meeting page (including nearest BART station etc.) but in short, it’s Sunday, April 8th (2012) at 3:00 to 5:00 PM, in the Audre Lorde Room (Upstairs) of the Women’s Building, 3543 18th (at Valencia), San Francisco. There is a $6 admittance charge to cover their expenses. I’ll be selling and signing my books, including Proving History. There will be a dinner after the meeting at a nearby reasonably-priced Chinese restaurant.

Ehrman Trashtalks Mythicism

Yesterday Bart Ehrman posted a brief article at the Huffington Post (Did Jesus Exist?) that essentially trashtalks all mythicists (those who argue Jesus Christ never actually existed but was a mythical person, as opposed to historicists, who argue the contrary), indiscriminately, with a litany of blatant factual errors and logical fallacies. This is either the worst writing he has ever done, or there are far more serious flaws in his book than I imagined (Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth). Amazon just reported that it shipped my copy of his book yesterday as well, so I will be able to review it soon.

I am puzzled especially because this HuffPo article as written makes several glaring errors and rhetorical howlers that I cannot believe any competent scholar would have written. Surely he is more careful and qualified in the book? I really hope so. Because I was expecting it to be the best case for historicism in print. But if it’s going to be like this article, it’s going to be the worst piece of scholarship ever written. So stay tuned for my future review of his book. For now, I will address this brief article, not knowing how his book might yet rescue him from an epic fail.

Attacking Academic Freedom

I won’t address his appeal to the genetic fallacy (mythicists are all critics of religion, therefore their criticisms of a religion as myth can be dismissed) or his sniping at credentials (where he gets insanely and invalidly hyper-specific about what qualifies a person to speak on this subject [which as one reader pointed out is the no-true-Scottsman fallacy]), except to note that it’s false: mythicist Thomas Thompson meets every one of Ehrman’s criteria–excepting only one thing, he is an expert in Judaism rather than Christianity specifically. And I know Ehrman knows of him. So did he just “forget” when he says he knows of no one who meets his criteria? Or is he being hyper-hyper specific and not allowing even professors of Jewish studies to have a respectable opinion in this matter? As Thompson’s book The Messiah Myth introduces the subject, “the assumptions that the gospels are about a Jesus of history…are not justified.” He says (my emphasis) that “a historical Jesus might be essential to the origins of Christianity,” but is not essential to the construction of “the gospels” (p. 8), not even the sayings in them come from a historical Jesus (pp. 11-26).

Thompson allows the possibility of a historical Jesus, but concludes that the “Jesus” of the New Testament is mythical, and calls for renewed study of the question of historicity generally. In his introduction to a recent anthology on the topic, which includes works by mythicists alongside historicists, Thompson (as co-author) concludes that “an unquestioning acceptance of the New Testament figures of Jesus, Paul and the disciples as historical can at times be shown to ignore and misunderstand the implicit functions of our texts” (p. 8 of Is This Not the Carpenter? The Question of the Historicity of the Figure of Jesus) and the possibility that Jesus didn’t exist “needs to be considered more comprehensively” than the dismissive attitude of historicists (like, as it happens, Ehrman) has allowed (p. 10). Currently all we have, Thompson concludes, is “a historical Jesus” who “is a hypothetical derivative of scholarship,” which “is no more a fact than is an equally hypothetical historical Moses or David.”

That’s a prestigious professor of biblical studies. Is Ehrman really pooh-poohing his qualifications? Because if he is, this article becomes a massive case of foot-in-mouth. Because in it, Ehrman commits some glaring factual errors that entail he is either the one not qualified to discuss this subject, or one of the sloppiest and most careless writers on earth. I’ll get to that. But first I must remark on the significance of all this. Ehrman intimates that any professor who entertains this hypothesis will be fired or otherwise never hired, that he will in effect suffer career persecution. He does not say this with sadness, but with glee, satisfaction even. Indeed Ehrman’s own article represents a variety of this persecution: ridicule and the slandering of credentials. Thompson may have only felt free to be honest about his views after he retired, when no one could fire him or persecute his career. I personally know a few professors who themselves also feel this way: they do not touch this topic with a ten foot pole, precisely because they fear the kind of thing Ehrman is doing and threatening. They do not want to lose their jobs or career prospects and opportunities. They do not want to be ridiculed or marginalized.

This makes Ehrman’s observation that no mythicist presently has a professorship (a distinction he did not make, but I am) a self-fulfilling prophecy: since Ehrman has all but explicitly stated that professors in “accredited institutions” do not have academic freedom, that indeed Ehrman opposes that freedom, verbally and institutionally, and endorses persecuting, verbally and institutionally, any who dare exercise it, who else do you think is free to challenge the consensus on this issue? Obviously, only outsiders can. The fact that that is what he observes is therefore not an argument against the merits of mythicism, but against the merits of attacking academic freedom.

Few other issues have this problem. You can challenge the consensus on almost anything else in Jesus studies, but this is sacrosanct, and if you dare, “we’ll ruin your career.” Such is Ehrman’s message. The fact that he then finds this a mark against mythicism betrays his circular reasoning. No, Dr. Ehrman, it is a mark against mainstream scholarship. You are acting like it is a religion, with dogmas that cannot be challenged, lest you suffer the consequences. Just imagine all the professors who find some mythicist theories plausible, reading your article. You have just successfully intimidated them into shutting the hell up. Or at least, apparently, you hope to have. That’s not admirable. And it’s not how an institution that values the pursuit of the truth should behave.

The only people who should be in danger of losing their careers in the field, and who should be criticized as such, are those who persistently fail to follow sound and defensible methods, or persistently demonstrate dishonesty or incompetence (James Tabor I fear might be going down that road; time will tell). Taking a controversial position and arguing a controversial theory does not rise to that level (much less merely considering or discussing it as a possibility). Thus, you should not attack mythicists as a group, for merely sharing a common position or theory, as if there were no distinctions among them as to capability and quality of work. That’s defending a dogma, not a method. Rather, you should attack particular and demonstrable failures of method and competence. And not just claim incompetence, but prove it. Anything else is just special pleading and ad hominem. To do it in the guise of shaming anyone who would dare side with us by denouncing in advance their competence and sanity and implicitly threatening their jobs only makes this despicable rather than merely fallacious.

I’m told Ehrman might make a cleaner distinction between quality and crank mythicism in his book. But many more people will read this article than his book. It’s therefore irresponsible of him to cast this nuance to the wind.

Factual Mistakes

An example of proving a specific instance of incompetence is to identify a factual error that no one who claims to be an expert on the issue in question could possibly have made. There are many other errors one can make, which don’t rise to that level, but I mean here errors of a very exceptional kind. Ehrman commits several, which I find astonishing, given his competence generally (his works in Jesus studies and textual criticism are among the best available, and I have and will always recommend Jesus Interrupted as the book anyone should read who wants to get up to speed on the current consensus in New Testament and Early Christianity, being a perfect parallel to The Bible Unearthed, which plays the same role for the Old Testament). A single error would be a minor lapse; but four in one brief article is a trend.

Perhaps these aren’t mistakes, and just very, very, very badly worded sentences. When I receive his book in a few days I’ll be able to check. Possibly he does a much better job there, and gets his facts right. We’ll see. But for now, I have to address this article…

Mistake #1: Ehrman says “not even … the most powerful and important figure of his day, Pontius Pilate” is “mentioned in any Roman sources of his day.” False. Philo of Alexandria was a living contemporary of Pilate, and wrote a whole book about him (or rather, against both Sejanus and Pilate, documenting the ways they had persecuted Jews contrary to prior imperial edicts, cf. Schürer and Eusebius, History of the Church 2.5, who had read this book), which we don’t have (it is one of the missing volumes of the Embassy to Gaius), but we do have Philo discussing one event involving Pilate in another book we do have, written in the 40s A.D., probably while Pilate was still alive, in his retirement (Philo, Embassy to Gaius 299-305).

We also have discussions of Pilate in Josephus’ Jewish War, written in 78 A.D., the same distance from Pilate’s life as the earliest Gospels are assumed to be from Jesus. But perhaps Ehrman is being hyper-specific again and only talking about contemporary attestation, although that would be disingenuous, since it is precisely this kind of early secular reference to Pilate that we don’t have for Jesus, and Ehrman is trying to say Pilate is an example of a famous person for whom we don’t have this–but, alas, we do. But even if we assume the disingenuous limiting of relevance to texts composed in “his day” we have Philo. If Ehrman is being hyper-specific as to his use of the word “Roman,” that would be even more disingenuous (as Philo’s cititizenship would hardly matter for this purpose; and at any rate, as a leading scholar and politician in Alexandria and chief embassador to the emperor, Philo was almost certainly a Roman citizen).

Forgetting (or not knowing?) that Philo attests to Pilate’s service in Judea is a serious error for Ehrman and his argument, because the absence of any mention of Jesus or Christianity in Philo is indeed very odd. In fact, the loss of his book about Pilate’s reign is a very curious omission–even though Christians preserved over three dozen other books of his, amounting to nearly 900 pages of multi-columned small type in English translation, Christians chose not to preserve the book on Pilate, and that despite preserving other volumes in the very same treatise. Why? Maybe the loss was just accidental (I suspect it was because no mention of Jesus was in it, but obviously we can debate that). Christians were evangelizing in Alexandria during Philo’s lifetime. If Acts is to be believed, Jewish leaders were very concerned to oppose this and took active effort to persecute Christians. If that is at all true, we can be certain Philo knew of Christians and their claims and stories, and thus knew of Jesus. He was a leading scholar, who wrote on various Jewish sects, and a significant political figure plugged into the elite concerns of Alexandrian Jews, who even chose him to lead their embassy to the emperor of Rome. (He also made regular pilgrimages to Jerusalem: Philo, On Providence 2.64.)

The only explanation for why Philo never mentions Christianity is that it was not as important to Jews as Acts depicts, but was a tiny fringe cult of no significant interest to the Jewish elite. And that is an important conclusion. Mythicists will say he doesn’t mention Jesus because there was no Jesus, but that does not explain why he doesn’t mention Christianity. Certainly, if Jesus was as famous and controversial as the Gospels and Acts depict, then Philo’s lack of interest in either the man or the threatening and grandiose claims made about him becomes improbable, but if we accept that the Gospels and Acts hugely exaggerate his fame and importance, then Philo’s disinterest goes back to being probable again. The consequence of this is that you must accept that Philo’s silence argues against the existence of Jesus as depicted in the Gospels. One must therefore conclude the Gospels substantially fictionalize the story of Jesus. I don’t think Ehrman disagrees with that conclusion, but he loses sight of it in his attempt to mock the importance of this kind of evidence, the silence of external sources.

But that is not the extent of his mistake. Forgetting (or not knowing?) about Philo (or even Josephus) mentioning Pilate is bad enough. Worst of all is the fact that Ehrman’s claim is completely false even on the most disingenuous possible reading of his statement. For we have an inscription, commissioned by Pilate himself, attesting to his existence and service in Judea. That’s as “Roman” an attestation as you can get. And it’s not just contemporary attestation, it’s eyewitness attestation, and not just eyewitness attestation, but its very autograph (not a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy, but the original text, no doubt proofed by Pilate’s own eyes). And that literally carved in stone. How could anyone not know of this, who intended to use Pilate as an example? Even the most rudimentary fact-check would have brought this up. And one of the most fundamental requirements of Ehrman’s profession is to check what sources we have on Pilate, before making a claim that we have no early ones. Ehrman thus demonstrates that he didn’t check; which is an amateur mistake. I’ve occasionally made errors like that, but only in matters of considerable complexity. We’re talking about something he could have corrected with just sixty seconds on google.

The lack of comparable inscriptions erected by any Christian churches or any wealthy convert at any time throughout the first century is indeed a curious thing. It can be explained (apocalyptic expectations, poverty, humility, the extremely small size of the movement). But it is still a fact, and it is not disingenuous to at least concede that we don’t have this or any comparable evidence. Explaining why we don’t have any evidence (like we have for Pilate: an inscription; a neutral contemporary text, and a neutral near-contemporary text) does not permit us to ignore the fact that we still don’t have it. And where evidence is missing, the possibilities multiply. Again, this entails things about early Christianity (whatever explanation you have for this lack of evidence, you must then accept as true about early Christianity as a whole, and that means accepting all the consequences of that fact as well).

So this certainly does not prove Jesus didn’t exist. Because we can retreat to the hypothesis that he was not anywhere near as famous as the Gospels portray, and the Christian movement not anywhere near as large as Acts implies. But Ehrman didn’t make that valid argument; he made the invalid argument instead, and premised it on amateur factual mistakes. Emotion seems to have seized his brain. Seeing red, he failed to function like a competent scholar, and instead fired off a screed every bit as crank as the worst of any of his opponents. Foot, mouth.

This is simply not how to argue for historicity. It’s a classic example of boner mistakes made by historicists, which calls into question their competence to speak on this issue. Usually I see this claim made of Socrates or Alexander the Great, for each of whom we have vastly more contemporary attestation than we do for Jesus, despite actual claims to the contrary made by Jesus scholars who incompetently didn’t bother to check. Thankfully Ehrman didn’t make that foolish a mistake. But making the same mistake in using Pilate puts him right in their company.

Mistake #2: Ehrman actually says (and I can’t believe it, but these are his exact words):

With respect to Jesus, we have numerous, independent accounts of his life in the sources lying behind the Gospels (and the writings of Paul) — sources that originated in Jesus’ native tongue Aramaic and that can be dated to within just a year or two of his life (before the religion moved to convert pagans in droves). Historical sources like that are pretty astounding for an ancient figure of any kind.

He actually says we have such sources. We do not. That is simply a plain, straight-up falsehood. I can only suppose he means Q or some hypothesized sources behind the creedal statements in Paul or the sermons in Acts, but none of those sources exist, and are purely hypothetical. In fact, barely more than conjectural. There is serious debate in the academic community as to whether Q even existed; and even among those who believe it did, there is serious debate about whether it comes from Aramaic or in fact Greek sources or whether it’s one source or several or whether it even goes back to Jesus at all. The background to the creeds and sermons are even more conjectural (the creeds might go back to Aramaic sources, but none attest to a historical Jesus in the required sense of the term; and the sermons almost certainly do not go back to Aramaic sources, but are literary constructions of the author of Acts, writing in a Semitized Greek heavily influenced by the Septuagint; see Proving History, pp. 184-86 and Richard Pervo’s The Mystery of Acts, just for starters).

So what Aramaic sources do we “have,” Dr. Ehrman? Do tell. And on what basis do you conclude they were written down “within just a year or two of his life”? How can you be so precise? I can only assume this is an allusion to the origin of the creed in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 (whose origin some scholars date to the formation of the cult), which we do not have in Aramaic, and could have originated in a Semitized Greek (and therefore we cannot be certain it began in Aramaic; and it certainly is not the words of Jesus). But when did it originate? When did it originate in that form? (Since it is not a given that it hasn’t changed; it obviously did, since Paul has added to it, attaching a reference to his own revelation at the end; how many other changes did it undergo on its way to him?) More importantly, that creed contains no reference to Jesus living on earth, having a ministry, or doing or saying anything in life. All it says is that scripture says he died, was buried, and was resurrected (it notably does not say anyone witnessed this, or when it happened or by whom, e.g. it does not say Jesus was crucified by Pontius Pilate, a key component of later creeds) and only then this Jesus appeared to some people (in a fashion I know Ehrman himself agrees is not relevant to this debate: because a historical Jesus did not “appear” after his death, but a cosmic, revelatory Jesus, a product of the apostles’ imagination).

The fact that Jesus is not said to have appeared or taught or done anything at all before he died is not something to just brush under the rug. Nor also the fact that the only source being given for his death and burial in this creed is scripture, whereas the source for his “subsequent” (post-mortem) ministry is given as seeing him, and that only in “revelations” (Galatians 1:11-12, which then must be the same as all the others: 1 Cor. 15:5-8). Likewise, note that many mythical godmen “died, were buried, and resurrected,” or a near enough equivalent, thus Paul stating such a creed no more attests the historicity of Jesus than it attests the historicity of Osiris (or Romulus or Hercules or Inanna or Zalmoxis or Bacchus or Adonis and so on; Osiris is the only one of these who was explicitly “buried,” but similar stories were told of all these others, e.g. Hercules was burned on a pyre, and certainly before Christianity: see Not the Impossible Faith, chapters 1 and 3). None of this entails Jesus didn’t exist, but it certainly allows the possibility. If Ehrman doesn’t see that, then he is not being objective or reasonable.

Thus when he touts this conjectural, non-existent, uncertain-to-be “Aramaic” source (in fact he says sources, so we even have multiple imaginary attestation!), which in fact argues as much for the non-existence of Jesus as otherwise, as being comparable to a slam-dunk confirmation of his historicity, this is some very slipshod argument indeed. Had any of his opponents pulled that trick on him, he would not be at all kind in pointing out how fallacious it is. But alas, he cannot see that he is committing the very same fallacy, and in his effort to attack his enemies, has become just like them. That he actually says we have this conjectural, non-existent, uncertain-to-be “Aramaic” source is, by contrast, profoundly incompetent writing. I am certain he did not really mean to lie. In his emotional pique, he just didn’t proof his own article and thus didn’t notice how badly he misspoke. But that suggests he is driving on emotion and not reason or any careful process.

And yet one could easily mistake him for lying. Because he actually says of this conjectural, non-existent, uncertain-to-be “Aramaic” source that “historical sources like that are pretty astounding for an ancient figure of any kind.” You mean, not having a source is pretty astounding for an ancient figure? Stated correctly, his sentence makes no sense (there is nothing astounding about not having a source). Thus, it seems as if he really did intend the readers of his article to believe we have this source he is talking about (and indeed, many a layperson will make this mistake in reading it, and I fully expect to have people repeating to me that “Dr. Ehrman said we have multiple Aramaic documents dating to just a year or two after Jesus attesting his existence,” requiring me to correct them, an annoying phenomenon I usually have to deal with from mythicists, not proper scholars like Ehrman).

Altogether, these two sentences from him look more crank than anything he accuses mythicists of. A hypothetical source we don’t have is simply not “pretty astounding.” Indeed, if that’s the standard, then we have vast quantities of sources for other ancient persons. Really, if we get to count “hypothetical” sources like that, then in fact don’t we have such sources for all historical persons attested in antiquity?

Mistake #3: Ehrman says “we do not have accounts of others who were born to virgin mothers and who died as an atonement for sin and then were raised from the dead (despite what the sensationalists claim ad nauseum [sic] in their propagandized versions).” Taken strictly literally, this sentence is true. But that is misleading, and therefore disingenuous. As such, it amounts to a straw man (at least of many mythicists; some few mythicists, the more incompetent of them, make that specific claim, but attacking only the weakest proponent of a position is precisely what makes this a fallacy). No competent mythicist makes this claim. Rather, they claim that virgin-born gods were a common phenomenon in the region at the time and dying-and-rising gods were a common phenomenon in the region at the time (in precisely the way these were not anywhere else, e.g. in ancient China), and so for Jews to suddenly start claiming they have one, too, looks pretty easily explained in terms of standard theories of cultural diffusion. (See my chapter on the origins of Christianity in The End of Christianity, ch. 2, pp. 53-74.)

Ehrman appears to be denying this, and as such is making himself look like a crank again–in fact like an ignorant Christian apologist spewing contrafactual propaganda. That makes him at the very least guilty of really terrible writing. What I suppose he means to say is the disingenuous, strictly literal thing, but as I already noted, that would be fallacious and thus logically incompetent. Religious syncretism is the process of combining ideas from several sources, often the most popular or useful ideas in the air, into a new whole, making for a new religion. All religions are produced this way. Christianity therefore certainly was as well (it would go against all prior probability to claim otherwise, and against all the evidence as well). Judaism had a prominent component of sacrifices atoning for a nation’s entire sins, a belief in the holy spirit making Jewish kings into the sons of god (see Not the Impossible Faith, chapter 9), and a tendency toward ascetic denigration of sexuality. Paganism had a prominent component of dying-and-rising savior gods, who likewise offered ways to cleanse their followers of sins and thus procure them entry into paradise–not necessarily by their death, but always in some way, and in many cases through baptismal rituals long predating Christianity’s adoption of the same or similar ritual (see The Empty Tomb, p. 215, n. 210); and pagans had many traditions about virgin born sons of god. Note what happens when you combine the Jewish side with the pagan: you get Christianity. This is actually almost certainly what happened, and thus should not even be in dispute.

This does not equate to concluding that Jesus was a fictional person; rather, even if he was historical, the attribution to him of the properties of pagan deities had to come from somewhere, and cultural diffusion is the obvious source. Ehrman appears to be denying even that latter fact, which puts him at the far extreme of even mainstream scholarship. He is implausibly implying that it’s “just a coincidence” that in the midst of a fashion for dying-and-rising salvation gods with sin-cleansing baptisms, the Jews just happened to come up with the same exact idea without any influence at all from this going on all around them. That they “just happened” to come up with the idea of a virgin born son of god, when surrounded by virgin born sons of god, as if by total coincidence. (Can you imagine it? They independently think up the idea, then go preaching around Gentile cities and discover there are all these other virgin born sons of god…why, golly gee, what a coincidence! See Not the Impossible Faith, pp. 76-78, near the end of chapter 2, where Perseus is an example recognized even by early Christians as being “virgin born”; and to which can be added, in some traditions, the virgin birth of Romulus: Plutarch, Life of Romulus 3; Ra, in the tradition that had him born of the virgin Neith; Dionysus, in the tradition by which Semele is impregnated with a potion; etc.)

So does Ehrman mean we have no precedent who satisfied all those attributes at once? (A straw man.) Or does he mean we have no precedents for any of those attributes individually as available material for syncretism? (A false claim, of the most incompetent kind.) Either he is engaging in patently illogical argument, or disturbingly incompetent reporting. Neither makes him look like he’s the one to trust in this debate. Again, this makes him look like the slipshod crank.

Mistake #4:  This might not be a mistake, so much as an allusion to an argument in his book: he says “prior to Christianity, there were no Jews at all, of any kind whatsoever, who thought that there would be a future crucified messiah.” He knows I have presented ample evidence refuting this, both as to the fact of it (Daniel 9:26 says a messiah will die, and the pre-Christian Melchizedek scroll explicitly identifies this passage as being about the messiah, or at least a messiah who would cleanse the world of sin), and also by demonstrating its irrelevance, since even Ehrman cannot deny later Jews taught and believed in a future messiah “son of Joseph” who would be killed by his enemies (as attested in the Talmud and other Judaica), and they certainly didn’t borrow this idea from the despised heretical sect of Christianity, which means the idea was not anathema to Jews and could easily be conceived by them (and likely predates Christianity, since both Jews and Christians imagining the dying messiah’s father as named “Joseph” seems otherwise a remarkable coincidence, but that need not be supposed to make my present point).

On all these points, see my essay The Dying Messiah. I can only presume Ehrman builds some sort of argument against my case in his book, which from our correspondence I predict will be fallacious (making a straw man of my evidence, selecting scholarship that agrees with him and ignoring scholarship that agrees with me, etc.). But in this article, to make so adamant an assertion, knowing full well there is a respectable case to be made to the contrary, is again crank behavior, not reasoned scholarship. Once again he is acting exactly like the worst of those he denounces.

His mistake here is two-fold, in fact, since it does not merely consist of a factually questionable assertion, and one that does not entail the conclusion he wants even if the assertion were true (since imagining a murdered messiah was possible for Jews, he cannot mean to argue Christians wouldn’t have invented it, when later Jews clearly had no problem inventing one), but he leverages it into a whopper of a logical fallacy: a self-contradictory assertion. Ehrman says “the messiah was to be a figure of grandeur and power who overthrew the enemy” (certainly, that was the most common view; but it is a fallacy of hasty generalization to assume that that was the only view, especially since we don’t know what most of the dozens of Jewish sects there were believed about this: see Proving History, pp. 129-34). From this fallacious hasty generalization, Ehrman then concludes “anyone who wanted to make up a messiah would make him like that.”

Now, I want to pause for a moment and perform a brief logic test. Before reading on, read that last quotation again, and ask yourself if you can see why that conclusion can’t be correct. Why, in fact, what he is suggesting, what he predicts would happen on mythicism, is impossible.

Answer: the only kind of messiah figure you could invent would be one who wasn’t like that. Otherwise, everyone would notice no divine being had militarily liberated Israel and resurrected all the world’s dead. This means the probability of that evidence (“anyone who wanted to make up a messiah would make him like that”) on the hypothesis “someone made up a messiah” is exactly zero. In formal terms, by the Bayesian logic of evidence (which I explain in Proving History), this means P(~e|h.b) = 0, and since P(e|h.b) = 1 – P(~e|h.b), and 1 – 0 = 1, P(e|h.b) = 1, i.e. 100%. This means that if “someone made up a messiah” we can be absolutely certain he would look essentially just like Jesus Christ. A being no one noticed, who didn’t do anything publicly observable, yet still accomplished the messianic task, only spiritually (precisely the one way no one could produce any evidence against). In other words, a messiah whose accomplishments one could only “feel in one’s heart” (or see by revelation, as the Corinthian creed declares; or discover in scripture, as that same creed again declares, as well as Romans 16:25-26).

This means Ehrman is definitely failing at basic evidential logic. This is one respect in which my book Proving History will school him.

Ehrman’s Only Evidence

Ehrman lists only one single item of evidence for Jesus’ historicity that survives basic review: the fact that Paul once refers to having met “James the brother of the Lord” (Galatians 1:18-20; Paul also mentions a generic “brothers of the Lord” in 1 Cor. 9:5). Ehrman slightly misrepresents the evidence when he claims that Paul met “Jesus’ closest disciple Peter,” since Paul never once calls Peter a “disciple” (in fact, no such term appears anywhere in Paul’s letters), and never mentions him being close to Jesus at all, much less his “closest.” But Paul does say he met the brother of the Lord, and mentions “brothers of the Lord.”

However, Paul does not say “brother of Jesus,” but “brother of the Lord,” which can only be a cultic title (one does not become the brother of “the Lord” until the person in question is hailed “the Lord,” thus the phrase “brother of the Lord” is a creation of Christian ideology). Yes, he may have earned that cultic title by actually being the brother of Jesus. But he could also have earned it by simply being a baptized Christian. Since all baptized Christians were the adopted sons of God, just as Jesus was (Romans 1:3-4), Jesus was only “the first born among many brethren” (Romans 8:29), which means all Christians were the brothers of the Lord (or rather, all baptized Christians were, as there is evidence to suggest one did not become adopted until baptism, e.g. Romans 6:3-10, and Christians were not baptized right away, they had to undergo a period of initiation first). Though true in that sense, possibly one was not allowed to use that specific title until they had achieved full ascension through all the grades of initiation, and thus it was a title of rank, since there is evidence in Clement of Alexandria that one did not become fully a son of God until ascending several levels of initiation.

But one can question at what time that multi-stage process was begun, and exploring that would be too lengthy a digression. It’s enough to test the hypothesis that every Christian would be called brother of the Lord. The fact of it is true: as just shown, all Christians were brothers of the Lord, by their own religious conceptions; there are numerous passages in Paul that confirm this: Romans 8:15-29, 9:26; Galatians 3:26-29, 4:4-7; and Christians explicitly taught that Jesus himself called all of them his brothers in Hebrews 2:10-18, via a “secret message” in the Psalms (Psalms 22:22). They had obvious inspiration from what they regarded as scripture, the Psalms of Solomon 17:26-27, which Paul appears to reference, and which predicted that the messiah would gather a select people and designate them all the sons of god (and thereby, his brethren).

This is hypothesis (1); the alternatives are (2) that only actual brothers could use this title, even though all Christians were brothers of the Lord, which would entail some policing of the use of the phrase, which is not in evidence in Paul or (3) such policing was done, but to secure the title as one of rank and not actual biological kinship. Notably, (2) and (3) both require a practice of policing the use of the exact phrase, to prevent other brothers of the Lord from calling themselves or each other Brothers of the Lord. The probability that (1) or (3) is true is greater than the probability that only (1) is true, and only on (2) is this phrase evidence of the historicity of Jesus. So if we ignore (3) and only focus on (1), our conclusion against (2) will be even stronger when we include the possibility of (3).

So what happens when we compare (1) against (2)? Hypothesis (2) requires there to have been policing of the cultic title so that only biological brothers could use it or be referred to by it. Hypothesis (1) does not require that ad hoc assumption. This means (1) is the simpler hypothesis. It therefore has the greater prior probability (see Proving History, pp. 80-81). Furthermore, (1) is actually in evidence (we know all Christians in Paul’s time were brothers of the Lord in cultic fact, as all the passages above prove), whereas (2) is not (not one time in all of Paul’s letters does he ever say or even imply that this phrase means only biological brothers). (1) is therefore the most probable hypothesis. Which therefore means this phrase is not evidence for the historicity of Jesus. In Bayesian terms, this means: given the background evidence (the facts pertaining to Christians regarding themselves as all sons of God and thus brothers of the son of God), (1) has greater prior probability, and greater net consequent probability (since on [2] the probability can’t be zero that we would have better evidence against [1], whereas on [1] the evidence we have is 100% expected). [This conclusion could change if we verify that the claims in the Gospels (and subsequent sources) that Jesus had brothers are true, but that would first have to be done.]

The one argument left is to suggest that if (1) were true, it would be redundant of Paul to mention that James was a brother of the Lord (that would not, however, be the case in 1 Cor. 9:5), and redundant expressions are less probable (i.e. they are unexpected). But this fails a basic test: Paul often calls people “brother” along with their name even when the context makes this redundant (Philm. 1:1, 1 Thess. 3:2, Philp. 2:25, 2 Cor. 2:13 and 1:1, 1 Cor. 16:12 and 1:1, Romans 16:23). That he would on rare occasion use the complete phrase “brother of the Lord” would not be unexpected. The more so if Peter had a brother named James, as that would require Paul in this instance to distinguish the apostle James from James the brother of Peter, in which case saying just “brother” wouldn’t do, necessitating the full epithet “brother of the Lord,” i.e. not of Peter (because Paul says he met with “Peter” and no other apostle except this James).

[Nevertheless, after discussing this in comments, I do agree we should allow that his use of the phrase here nevertheless has some probability less than 100%, since it is not assured that he would have used it here. So we have to break the matter down into all competing explanations and work the numbers for each. And to argue a fortiori (Proving History, pp. 85-88) we might even lower that probability a lot, making this evidence for historicity rather than against. But these reasons are precisely why these conclusions have to be debated and not assumed.]

It is also entirely possible that “of the Lord” (tou kyriou) was a later scribal addition, aiming to turn this James into the brother of Jesus by harmonization with the Gospels and later legend. These kinds of harmonizing and retrodictive emendations to the text of the NT were common, and assuming they haven’t occurred in cases, like this, where they are most likely, is a dangerously weak platform to erect a theory upon (see the slideshow for my debate with J.P. Holding on the textual reliability of the NT, linked in Debates & Interviews and my post on Pauline Interpolations). Since this is literally the only evidence Ehrman has that Jesus existed, the weakness of it should be alarming to him, not cause for arrogant displays of unshakable certainty.

What’s Left?

Ehrman might answer “we have the Gospels” and “we have Paul relating sayings of the Lord” and “we have second century references” but none of these hold up, as he perhaps knows when he admits there is a lot of mythmaking in the Gospels, for example. But one myth is as good as another. To say that the Gospels contain a lot of myth, therefore they “can’t” be entirely myth, is not valid reasoning. They might contain a historical core, they might not. That has to be determined, and is at least an honestly debatable question. As Dr. Thompson admitted. I think on full analysis they come out as completely mythical (most of the attempts to argue otherwise fail on basic logic, as I demonstrate in Proving History, chapter 5). That should at least be a respectable position, even if Ehrman or anyone disagrees with it.

The second century references, meanwhile, cannot be shown to be independent of the Gospels (e.g. the reference in Tacitus, even the Testimonium Flavianum, even if it were completely genuine–and it’s not–says nothing that could not have simply been read out of a Gospel or gotten from any other Christian source relying on one), or to derive from any real source at all (e.g. the Infancy Gospels). And like any other mythic being, the Gospels would not be the earliest versions of the creed; many mythical demigods “died and were resurrected,” some were even “buried” or hung or burned or cut to pieces; that doesn’t make them historical. Thus, in Paul, that Jesus was created out of the “seed of David” (in fulfillment of prophecy) and “born of a woman” are claims that could just as easily be made of any mythical demigod (all of whom were born of a woman, and some of whom were “magically” born from the seed of their fathers, like Perseus, or even, as in the case of Dionysus, their previous corpses). They also said things–none of which were historical. Paul himself only identifies two sources for his sayings of the Lord: scripture and revelation (e.g. 1 Corinthians 11:23 in light of Galatians 1:18-20). No historical Jesus is needed there.

That leaves nothing.

Obviously, saying all this is by no means sufficient to demonstrate that Jesus didn’t exist. There is still evidence to debate and logic to test. But it ought to be sufficient to demonstrate that this is at least a respectable theory to consider. As long as it is considered competently and with due attention to facts and logic and productive peer debate, why not?

 

[For a follow up to this post see McGrath on the Amazing Infallible Ehrman. For my reply to Ehrman’s response to this review see Ehrman’s Dubious Replies (Round One). And for my subsequent critical review of Ehrman’s book see Ehrman on Jesus: A Failure of Facts and Logic.]

Appearing in Wisconsin

I will be among the featured speakers at the Freethought Festival 2012 on the UW campus (Madison, Wisconin), sponsored by the Madison Area Coalition of Reason and Atheists, Humanists, and Agnostics at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. The event runs Friday-to-Sunday, April 27 to 29 (in the Mosse Humanities Bldg,  Rm. 3650, 455 N. Park St.). I will be selling and signing copies of my books, including Proving History, which will be the subject of my talk (as far as pertains to the “historicity of Jesus”).

I’ll be speaking in the Saturday 2pm slot (April 28). The way they are packing the speakers it looks like I’ll have less than half an hour to speak and no Q&A, unfortunately. But I’ll be attending the whole conference, so interested jumbles of people can hang out with me (I am hoping to fit in a visit to Freethought Hall, though, if it will be open; in fact, if anyone there will have a car and wants to drive me over sometime during the conference, let me know!).

Registration is free, but if you will go, you should register, and as soon as possible, so they have a good head count before the event and can plan ahead (and just in case they fill up and have to send everyone away who shows up at the last minute!).

The conference line-up is chock full of cool people. Those I know personally include Darrel Ray, JT Eberhard, PZ Myers, Hemant Mehta, Annie Laurie Gaylor, and DJ Grothe. I also know Valerie Tarico, since we worked together on The Christian Delusion and The End of Christianity (she has a chapter in each). And I am familiar with Elliott Sober (I used some of his Bayesian work on the fine tuning argument in The End of Christianity) and Matt Dillahunty (a contributor here at FtB), and Ellery Schempp and James Croft by reputation. New to me (unless I met them and don’t remember; I meet a lot of people!) will be Chris Calvey, Kevin Padian, Veronica Drantz, Andrew Seidel, Sean Faircloth, Phil Ferguson, Dale McGowan, Lyz Lydell, and Alix Jules, a mix of scientists and activists. It will be a jam packed information adventure. And several of these speakers I know to be reliably entertaining. So I’m sure this will be a smashing conference!

That Luxor Thing Again

Acharya S (aka D.M. Murdock) responded to my post on That Luxor Thing, with a number of weirdly paranoid claims, but one valid criticism, and a few incorrect criticisms and more bad arguments, and it is worth addressing these in this new post. To read her entry in this exchange see Parallelophobia, Personal Attacks and Professional Jealousy: A Response to Richard Carrier’s ‘That Luxor Thing’.

Paranoia vs. Professionalism

One of the reasons Murdock’s methodology goes off the rails is that she assumes everyone is out to get her and that there is always some sort of evil conspiracy against her work. Which insulates her from listening to criticism and correcting the way she does things. That is one of the surest ways to fail as a scholar. It likely also prevents her from having useful dialogs with experts in ancient history. Which is the surest way to make yourself irrelevant as a scholar. But that’s her own lookout.

What concerns me more is her mean-spirited paranoia. For example, she says of me that “He’s releasing a new book about mythicism; hence, he’s trying to get attention by attacking others in the field who seem to have a significant following, in order to garner those followers to himself.” Huh? Why on earth does she come to that conclusion? It’s not even logical, much less in evidence. I’m not interested in “followers” (although by her expressed fear, she evidently is; which is more characteristic of a guru than a scholar). I am interested in persuading academic professionals that a particular theory is true, or at least plausible enough to treat as respectably as other theories in the field. Every time I attempt to do that, I have the sloppy methodology of other mythers thrown in my face as a reason to dismiss all mythicism, and I have to spend a great deal of additional time explaining why my methods are valid and that mythicism can be supported with valid arguments. (I have also had mythers’ unfriendly paranoia cited at me by professors in the field, forcing me to also prove I don’t act like that–I had dismissed that claim about Murdock in the past, but now seeing it flung at me, evidently the scholars who mentioned it to me were correct about it; this is not doing her or mythicism any good, it makes them both look like tinfoil hat.)

By contrast, I have said many times that Earl Doherty’s approach is the most methodological and theoretically sound of any so far (despite only some minor flaws), and I have adapted his theory into its most defensible variant, and I always recommend his book The Jesus Puzzle as the best case yet made for mythicism. My review of his work mentioned all the ways it was correct, and all the ways it could be improved. In what way does this fit Murdock’s theory about me? Contrary to her paranoid fantasies, I address the validity of facts and methodology, praise where praise is due, censure where censure is due. Instead, Murdock thinks this is a political game whereby we should all “up vote” and “positively review” each others work, and never be “adversarial.” That is a perfect example of why her methodology sucks. That is not how a professional should ever behave. You can never make progress toward any true knowledge if you never criticize or call out error, if you show no interest in the validity of the methods being employed, if you show no desire to root out errors and improve methodologies. If it’s all a “back slapping” game whereby our only aim is to promote each others’ book sales, then we are not scholars. We’re hucksters.

Thus, Murdock intimates that she will now negatively review any books I produce, simply because I did not play her game (which is ironic, as it implies a level of vendetta and dishonesty in her that she projects onto me, to the eternal satisfaction of Sigmund Freud). Instead, I acted like actual scholars act: we criticize each other’s work, specifically so as to identify error and improve our methods and conclusions as a collective enterprise. Instead of being objective and simply evaluating works on their merits, Murdock says she “could have” positively reviewed my work as she did Doherty’s and Price’s, that I “could have benefited likewise,” had I “not chosen to be adversarial.” So, simply because I dared criticize her, now she will trash my work or ignore it, like a pouting child. Not behave, apparently, like a professional. (Notably, “personal attacks” is in the title of her post, yet between us, the only personal attacks I see are hers against me, impugning my motives and honesty; she fails to adduce any actual personal attacks from me against her.)

Her paranoid behavior continues to show when she assumes I was making an argument of “Guilt by Association” when I mentioned the bad scholarship of Kersey Graves as something to be aware of (even though linking to my past work on similar subjects, particularly to inform the public, is a common practice of mine, and I never once said she was relying on Graves or even like him, apart from the single fact of seeing parallels where there are none). She then weirdly implies some sort of vague defense of Graves, rather than agreeing with me that Graves’s scholarship sucks, while simultaneously insisting she doesn’t rely on him, which I never implied she did. It’s all very confusing. Is Graves’ scholarship reliable, or not? She then goes on to chest pump about all her amazing work that I ignore. It’s not exactly the behavior of a person who believes in being objective or resolving disagreements.

Murdock also seems obsessed with radical counter-consensus claims, rather than showing any humility or caution in exploring them. For example, she says Ph.D.d scholars (whom she doesn’t name) agree with her that “Christian scribes at Alexandria copied Buddhist texts for much of their source material. Carrier endorses The Case Against Q, but these Buddhist scholars are quite certain they have found Q, so let us sit back and watch the fireworks.” Indeed. When this gets in a peer reviewed journal in the field, I will read it. When will that be exactly? Because I would be most eager to use this as evidence in my own book. The thing is, I find the claim dubious. As will most experts in the field. The proper procedure in that case is to admit you have some convincing of experts to do, that until it gets properly vetted it might not hold up to scrutiny, and that you should go through proper channels and methods to seek that scrutiny, and see what comes out. Instead the arrogance and certainty she exhibits on this point is another example of her bad methodology. It’s a set up for verification bias and a failure to detect and correct errors of method and inference.

This is not the correct way to behave as a scholar. It is anathema to sound methodology. And it’s guaranteed to get you ignored by the very people you should be aiming to persuade: the expert community as a whole.

The Valid Criticism

Even so, Murdock corrects me on one error of fact, and that I gladly concede and I apologize for getting it wrong: the actual inscription in the Luxor temple was probably produced almost a century after Hatshepsut, and thus not commissioned by the same queen as I had mistakenly reported. I have revised my original post to reflect this. It does not change my conclusion (as I now explain there), but it does soften it a little, since it would be much easier to prove that the inscriptions refer to the same story if they were commissioned by the same person; being a century apart opens up the possibility at least that the second commissioner changed the story in fundamental ways. But I do not see any evidence that this is what happened. Murdock relies on an elaborate system of speculations to conclude that the second story is not an abbreviation of the first but a substantial rewrite that has changed its fundamental character.

Normally a radical reinterpretation like that would be published under peer review so experts can consider it and criticize it if it is found wanting. An analogous example is the theory once advanced that the Marduk resurrection narrative recovered in clay tablets was a political satire of actual Marduk cult and that his “death” was meant to be an insult and not an actual part of ceremony and belief. This was published under peer review, then duly criticized by further articles under peer review, with the end result that it was found to be completely untenable, and it is now accepted that the death-and-resurrection of Marduk was a real part of Marduk cult, which long predated Christianity (and would still have been a component of cult at Tyre, which the Gospels claim Jesus visited, and which was right adjacent to Judea and a major trade hub for Judeans, so it can’t be claimed that Jews had never heard of it). This is how conclusions in the field become acceptable and usable as evidence to build theories on.

The analogy is that (I presume) Murdock agrees that the theory attacking the Marduk resurrection narrative was false and should have been rejected. But if we followed her methodology, it would have become “the theory” simply because someone (her analog) simply insisted it’s correct, and that their reinterpretation of the evidence is obviously correct, and that anyone who criticizes it is only doing so out of envy or to sell books, and therefore not only can all criticisms be ignored and all critics denounced as ignorant, but there is no need for any consensus to develop in the expert community at all before declaring this a proven fact. By that methodology, we would have rejected Marduk’s resurrection as a precedent for Christianity, exactly the opposite of what Murdock would want. Instead, the theory went through a correct process of professional presentation and consensus evaluation, and thus, thankfully for her, was rejected. If you want a radical new theory to be accepted, you have to go through the same process. Because it is precisely by surviving that process that a claim becomes established knowledge. Otherwise it just remains an outside fringe claim built on two parts speculation and one part arrogant certitude.

In this case, not only has her radical reinterpretation not gone through this process, it looks prima facie implausible. The Luxor inscriptions are self-evidently abbreviations of the other (they are uniformly shorter and lift identical phrases), not rewrites–in which what has changed would have to be explicitly asserted, precisely because otherwise everyone would assume the already-familiar story is what was being referenced. But the Luxor accounts do not actually assert that any part of the story has changed. They just tell the same story in a lot fewer words. This is how we work with myths and texts routinely: when we find an abbreviated version of the labors of Hercules, we interpret it in light of more elaborate versions, which fill in what has been cut short. We do not attempt to argue that, even though nothing different is explicitly being said, that nevertheless the story has radically changed. That is improper methodology. Because it goes against all natural probability, and rests on a number of ad hoc assumptions not firmly in evidence (which intrinsically reduces the prior probability of any hypothesis, because a simpler hypothesis, which does not need them, is inherently more likely, yet explains the evidence just as well: the reason this follows is among the methodological principles I demonstrate in Proving History).

Nevertheless, I admit I was wrong about one fact in this analysis, and I have now corrected it. Which is another of the methodological principles I articulate in Proving History (Rule 12, page 39).

The Invalid Criticisms

The rest of her commentary is barely worth the trouble of reading. Nothing else in it makes any valid point against what I said. Contrary to Murdock’s rebuttal, for example, I did not say anything follows from the images, but in fact made the opposite point, that like an illustrated bible, the images do not tell the whole story but only fractional snapshots. We therefore must rely on the inscriptions. Hence my argument above, and my own quotation of the actual Luxor inscription itself as an example. Likewise the idea that “no” mythical beings have genitalia (even though the phallus of Osiris, which impregnated Isis, was a major component of that cult, and we have inscriptions from Egypt depicting divine copulation) is simply not tenable. It is fallacious to argue that some impregnations were effected by other means (e.g. Zeus as a shower of gold), therefore all divine impregnations were effected by other means. This kind of hasty generalization is another example of bad methodology.

In attempting to bypass that point with the additional argument that even if they did have sex (a “having it both ways” approach to making her point, which is not intrinsically fallacious, but starts to look so here), “sex between an Egyptian god and a mortal woman is not all its cracked up to be” (whatever that is supposed to mean, and however it is supposed to be relevant to my point I don’t know; even the Luxor inscription, as I quoted, does not seem to suggest it was anything but a very amazing and very physical experience) and that, she says, in any case “both stories represent a godly act that produces a divine offspring.” But if that is all she is reducing her argument to, then her argument collapses altogether. Because there are hundreds of stories across dozens of cultures “that represent a godly act that produces a divine offspring.” That is in fact a necessary element of all demigod narratives whatever. So how then are we to suppose Christians needed the Luxor narrative to get theirs from?

This was the very point I made in my last post: divine acts impregnating females to produce divine sons were a ubiquitous element of pagan cultures all around the Jews, and of Hellenistic kingship narratives (most famously Alexander the Great). There was nothing even peculiarly Egyptian about them, much less “Luxorian.” Murdock’s further point that the Egyptian tales might have influenced these is actually a point I myself made: its irrelevant (since we want to know what the Christians borrowed from, not what their borrowee borrowed from, which might not have even been known to the Christians, as I explained) and unprovable (from the evidence we have we cannot demonstrate that this wasn’t just a ubiquitous cultural trope, or that these Egyptian ideas weren’t influenced by foreign ideas instead of the other way around). So why bother with it?

Murdock still has not cited any living Egyptologist who regards the Luxor narratives as a nonphysical (nonsexual) experience, yet taunts me with claims that she has. Instead she cites Wikipedia (not an Egyptologist), and even that does not say this (as the text she highlights only describes the pictures, not the text, and doesn’t say anything about the experience not being sexual). Again, this is not sound methodology. She then does this a lot, citing this or that Egyptologist saying one thing (with which I have never disagreed), then claiming it means what she says, but the quote doesn’t say that. You can’t cite an authority as affirming x, by quoting them saying y. Indeed, you shouldn’t even want to. (And I must warn anyone who might be thinking of “editing” the Wikipedia article to “support” her: I know how to read Wikipedia editing histories.)

And even despite all that weirdness, Murdock then backpedals and says “the debate remains whether the Egyptians themselves perceived their gods as having literal sex with mortals, or in general was the concept more spiritual or allegorical” (The debate where? What living Egyptologist is debating this?). We actually know something about this: all ancient texts about the allegorization of myths that discuss what “the people themselves” believed say that “the people themselves” not only took the myths literally but were sometimes so offended by the suggestion of allegorizing them that some scholars advised their peers to avoid mentioning this in public (see Strabo, Geography 1.2.8 and Heliodorus, Aethiopica 9.9.5; Seneca’s On Superstition, as quoted in Augustine’s City of God 6.10, presents an example; similar observations are made in Plutarch’s On Isis and Osiris and his On Superstition; Origen had something to say about it, too; Socrates was even executed by the state in part for the alleged “crime” of suggesting the state gods and myths not be taken literally).

The allegorical meaning of a narrative was often a component of mysteries that higher ranking members would learn; while the rank and file (and outsiders) would be lured and taught by the myths as literal texts. Thus, both “readings” of a narrative could exist at the same time. Even sometimes in the same mind: the allegory could be read as the meaning of a literal event. All three modes (literal reading, allegorical reading, and simultaneously both) are exhibited throughout Philo’s treatises on Allegorical Interpretation. So it is pointless to handwave about a “debate” over whether the allegories were taken literally or not. It was both. And the story was still there, and still had all its cultural connotations regardless. That’s why no Christian would “allegorically” have said Yahweh impregnated Mary with a phallus or that she fondled and smelled him in her bed. That would have been repugnant, just as I said. By contrast, sexless impregnations were plenty to be had from all surrounding cultures, so why are we assuming Christians were inspired by Egyptian tales specifically, or indeed the Luxor inscriptions specifically? Murdock’s answers to that question are not well founded.

Finally, Murdock spends a lot of time showing that divine birth narratives were all over Egypt. Well, yes. They were all over Tyre and Syria and Greece and Rome and Arabia and everywhere else, too. That’s my point. You can’t argue “it was everywhere, therefore it came from Egypt,” and since it was everywhere, it can’t be argued that Christians were influenced specifically by Egyptian versions of it. For example, per my previous post’s analysis, such a thesis does not explain the presence of magi in Matthew’s story, but a derivation from the OT does. When we account for every element that way, we end up with only one thing left over that’s held in common with Luxor: a God impregnating a woman to produce his Son. Which is not uniquely Egyptian but a universal trope repeated everywhere in every culture of the time. (Which is why it is odd she accuses me in her title of “parallelophobia,” even though I explicitly said even in that post that some such parallels were obvious and in fact more likely influences on the Christian story; so how am I parallelophobe, again?)

Her methodology throughout all this is simply not sound, and would not impress any expert I know. It clearly annoys her when I say that, but that doesn’t make it untrue.

Case in Point

I will close with a prime example of what I mean. At one point in her long post Murdock quotes a medieval author (Proclus) as saying that Cleopatra claimed to have been a virgin who never had sex with anyone yet gave birth to a divine son (which I suppose means Caesarion, although apparently she had several kids). That is simply not in the text.

Proclus says nothing about Cleopatra; nor is he talking about Isis, but Neith (Murdock often assumes that because these goddesses were merged or conflated in some cases, that therefore they are always the same goddess with always the same associated properties and stories, which is not correct reasoning; they are often referred to as working together–and thus often regarded as different goddesses–and their stories, relationships, and powers were often distinguished in some times and places even as they were merged in others); and what Proclus does say isn’t about virginity, even though Neith was indeed a virgin goddess, who gave birth to gods spontaneously, i.e. without the involvement of any other God (see Barbara Lesko, The Great Goddesses of Egypt, pp. 45-63)–which would not make this a passage relevant to Murdock’s thesis.

Just as importantly, no such claim is to be found anywhere near the actual time of Cleopatra (whereas the claim that her son was born to Julius Caesar, in the fully traditional way, she trumpeted high and low), and is not made even in Proclus (despite Murdock being so certain it was, for what reason I don’t know). So this is simply not a plausible claim, and the way Murdock argues for it exemplifies everything that is wrong with her methodology. Not least in failing to notice or mention that Proclus is not talking about Cleopatra. An occasional mistake like that, duly corrected, might be no big deal (if she does correct it). But it’s not like this is an isolated example. And the further one digs into her case here, the worse it gets…

You can read the text yourself: Proclus, Commentary on Plato’s Timaeus 1.98 (5th century A.D.). The section starts as his commentary on section 21e, where he begins explaining who the Neith is whom Plato mentions as the goddess who founded Sais (Plato, Timaeus 21e), identified with the virgin Athena. When Proclus gets to the relevant quote, this is the context:

But the Egyptians relate, that in the adytum of the Goddess there was this inscription, “I am the things that are, that will be, and that have been. No one has ever laid open the garment by which I am concealed. The fruit which I brought forth was the sun.” The Goddess, therefore, being demiurgic, and at the same time apparent and unapparent, has an allotment in the heavens, and illuminates generation with forms.

(According to the linked translation; I’ll provide my own shortly.) Proclus clearly understands the passage as referring to Neith’s ability to spontaneously give birth to elements of creation (as a demiurge); this is not a reference to any merger with the Isis narrative. The goddesses were merged or conflated from time to time, but that did not always result in all properties and stories being combined, and such a merger is not occurring in this inscription as far as I can see. Even so, Murdock tries to read virginity into it by translating “garment” as “undergarment” but that is not a correct translation (or is a misleading one, if readers are misled by it to think “undergarment” means “nickers” when in fact it means tunic or top).

For instance, Plutarch said some think this goddess is Isis, quoting a different version of the same inscription, or perhaps a different but related inscription (without mention of the birth part), in On Isis and Osiris 354c. Plutarch’s version reads (my translation) “I am all that has been and is and will be and my robe (peplon, an outer-garment, not an under-garment) no mortal has uncovered (apekalypsen, which means “revealed” as in made public).” Thus only mortals have not lifted her veil; no reference to giving birth (so we can’t assess how Plutarch would have rendered that part, if it then existed); some different wording throughout; and undergarments are not meant, nor sex or virginity, but a revealing of mysteries. The version that appears in Proclus reads (my translation) “that which is and will be and was, I am; my dress (chitôn, a tunic, which is not an undergarment in our sense of the word) no one has uncovered (again, apekalupsen); I bear the fruit, the sun comes to be” (whether the fruit meant is the sun, or all the things she creates, of which the sun is one, is unclear from the wording, but either way she gives birth to the sun). In neither case is there a reference to her “undergarments” staying put. The verb and imagery is of the mystery religions, her secrets being kept. And in the Proclean version the emphasis is on her spontaneous creative power. There is no reference to a divine father.

In her book (Christ in Egypt, p. 147) Murdock quotes a hundred-year-old article (even though you should not do that) by William Emmette Coleman (an army clerk and avid spiritualist with no known credentials and dubious reliability: see Jeffrey Lavoie, The Theosophical Society: The History of a Spiritualist Movement, pp. 269-74) who profusely insists this is about virginity and that every expert would agree. But does he name any? And what about now, 120 years later? Murdock names no one. Apparently Murdock thinks that what one amateur was “confident” every Egyptologist would say 120 years ago cannot possibly have been wrong then, nor have changed at all in 120 years. This is not how to support a conclusion. And it is maddening to run into this method of arguing a point again and again.

This is simply not how good scholarship works.

I will conclude with this: it is precisely because of these threads of research and analysis, which tediously take up my time for no purpose, only to reveal how unreliable Murdock is, in reporting, sourcing, and discussing facts, and in drawing inferences from what she quotes, that I don’t want to engage in these debates. If I were to repeat this for every claim she makes, and every claim every myther made, I would be occupied with this for hundreds of years. All to no purpose. I would rather start from the evidence itself, and recent peer reviewed scholarship by well-qualified specialists, and build my own case using a methodology I know to be sound. That is hard enough. It has taken me years (only now near to completionProving History is out in a few weeks, and I expect to have a reviewable first draft of Historicity by end of April). I am not going to waste any more time with “other people’s” shoddy scholarship. If someone else out there wants to do this, all the power to you. But from here on out I am disengaging. I will not bother “checking” any more of Murdock’s facts. Nor will I “debate” any of this, unless you can confirm I have made an actual, provable error (as I did make one, noted above). I am always interested in getting things right. But I am not interested in being someone else’s fact check boy. And I’m certainly not interested in Murdock’s paranoid aspersions or the trolling of her fanatical followers. Do keep that in mind.

Appearing in LA & Ventura

This April of 2012 I will be making three appearances in southern California. I will be talking about my new book Proving History at 7pm Monday night (April 23) in Ventura, for the Ventura Atheists (location requires joining their meetup group and RSVPing). I’ll be selling and signing copies of it there (I’ll have my other books on hand, too).

The preceding weekend (Saturday-Sunday, April 21-22) I’ll be at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books at USC (follow link for location and other details). I will be a featured author at the Atheists United table there (Why them? See below). My books will be sold the whole event long (until sold out), but I will also be there to sign books at some point (right now, my slot is looking like noon to 2pm on Saturday; if that changes I’ll update this blog, and post in the comments section). The booth is being shared in shifts by five or six authors all weekend. I might hang around some besides that, depends on if that’s practical, or if I get pulled away by other things. If you end up at the festival and I’m not at the booth you can always text me (determined fans can figure out where my number is) and ask whether I’m around.

And finally, the Friday night before that (April 20), Atheists United, who sponsored the grant that made Proving History possible, will be throwing a book launch party for me. This is invitation-only and hasn’t been officially announced anywhere; but if you want to attend, I’ve been authorized to issue invites, so you can contact me (see in comments below).

The God Impossible

Is the existence of God logically impossible? I used to be suspicious of arguments that attempted to prove that, because they were usually so lame, and easily rebutted (although some stick, depending on which “God” you are talking about: see my discussion of this in Sense and Goodness without God IV.2.4, pp. 275-77; and for some serious, but not always successful, attempts at building these kinds of arguments, see the anthology The Impossibility of God; some other examples are cataloged at the Secular Web; but a very interesting example, quite pertinent to today’s post, is Evan Fales’ Divine Intervention: Metaphysical and Epistemological Puzzles). Yesterday I blogged an ontological argument for the necessary existence of our universe without God (Ex Nihilo Onus Merdae Fit), and I had to stay on point there (it was long enough as is), but in developing that argument over the years I had already been thinking about one implication of it: if an infinite selection of all logically possible universes exists, then many of them will contain gods, if gods are logically possible. Today I cover that angle.

Which God Was That Again?

To begin with, we can rule out the God of any monotheism, for the simple reason that if P1 is true (“in the beginning, there was absolutely nothing,” the key premise of the argument I developed in the previous post), then there are infinitely many more configurations with multiple gods than only one god. In fact, if we’re to ask about a true monotheistic God, such that no other gods exist at all (not even in other universes), then the probability that such a God will come into existence on P1 is infinitely close to zero. Because it’s infinitely improbable that of all the possible configurations, we’d get only one God out of all the universes whatever. Indeed, universes with many gods in them will vastly outnumber universes with only one god in them, even before we get to the possibility of no universes containing any gods except one of them. So you can’t rebuild monotheism on P1. At best you get polytheism. In universes we’re not in (because if we were in one, we’d have verified some gods in it by now).

And that’s even if God is logically possible to begin with. And lately I have suspected he is not. I have approached this question from two different directions in my random contemplation over the decades, and I see now they are approaching a common result, so here in one post I will discuss them both and how they reinforce the same conclusion. The first relates to yesterday’s post, and the general question of what sort of entities can logically exist (which connects to my published work on defining naturalism and the supernatural) and how likely they’d be if P1 there is true and we followed it here to the same conclusion reached there (that infinitely many universes exist, being a random selection of all possible universes). The second relates more specifically to our ability to conceive of disembodied minds (and disembodied mental powers even apart from minds) and whether that affords any evidence that such things must be logically possible (I conclude it does not, and that it may even prove the contrary).

From Boltzmann Brains to Boltzmann Gods

In my work on Defining the Supernatural I explored the difference between “natural entities” and “supernatural entities,” and demonstrated that the latter are ontologically basic mental entities, such that if no such things exist, then nothing supernatural exists. And if that’s the case, then all mental entities are not ontologically basic, but are instead reducible to interacting nonmental parts (like neurons, microcircuits, or what have you). And that being the case is what defines naturalism as a worldview. In my analysis I discussed the difference between supernatural gods and the kind of gods that could still exist if naturalism is true (skip to the section there called The Stoic and Epicurean Gods to see what those would be like). The latter would basically be animals, aliens, or computers, or mishmashes of all three, and most likely in a truly bizarre scifi way. There are infinitely many different kinds of gods like this that are logically possible even on presently known physics.

And that has to be acknowledged. Probability combined with the law of large numbers combined with the realities of cosmological scales of space and time entails some very weird things. Which are nevertheless certainly true. I’m not speaking of Nick Bostrom’s bizarre argument that we must be living in a simulated universe (Are you Living in a Simulation?), which doesn’t really work, because it requires accepting the extremely implausible premise that most civilizations will behave in the most horrifically immoral way imaginable, and for no practical reason whatever (in all good sense, by far almost all sims that anyone will ever generate will be games and paradises, not countless trillions of aimlessly tedious worlds with thousands of years of pointless wars, holocausts, plagues, and famines). Rather, I’m speaking of Boltzmann Brains.

If the universe were to slowly expand forever, even if it were to fade into a heat death of total equilibrium, even then, simply due to the laws of probability, the random bouncing around of matter and energy would inevitably assemble a working brain. Just by chance. It’s only a matter of time. Maybe once every trillion trillion years in any expanse of a trillion trillion light years. But inevitably. And in fact, it would happen again and again, forever. So when all is said and done, there will be infinitely many more Boltzmann brains created in this universe than evolved brains like ours. The downside, of course, is that by far nearly all these brains will immediately die in the icy vacuum of space (don’t worry, by far most of these won’t survive long enough to experience even one moment of consciousness). And they would almost never have any company.

Which is how we know we aren’t Boltzmann brains. Because we aren’t just floating around alone in random space dust. Yes, there will also inevitably be a completely random assembly of a whole working earth and civilization and so on, but that will be vastly (and I mean vaaaaasssstlyy) rarer, and again even then we would see we were on a weird isolated earth floating around in a frozen dead universe. And yes, there will inevitably be a completely random assembly of a whole working universe out to a visible horizon fourteen billion light years away that just by accident happens to look like it’s undergoing an accelerating expansion, and look like it began by a Big Bang but didn’t, and people in that world will be fooled. But of all the worlds that look like that, almost none of them are like that. Rather, most worlds that look like that got there the hard way. And when I say most, if I were to attempt to show you the ratio of real to accidental worlds that look like that, you would be unable to conceive of the number I came up with. So the odds are as good as a hundred percent that we’re in one of those real worlds, and not one of the weirdo accidental ones that look exactly the same. Although, if P1 is false, then our world probably is the product of a Boltzmann Big Bang (see my comment in The End of Christianity, n. 31, p. 411). But it’s infinitely unlikely to be one of those accidentally deceptively assembled worlds.

Nevertheless, given infinite time, such worlds will exist. It’s a logically necessary truth. In fact, anything that has (and maintains) a stable nonzero probability of happening, will happen. Eventually. We can’t always be sure, though, what actually will maintain a stable nonzero probability of happening, and many things simply will not. Hitler will never be alive again. That probability is now zero. Because he’s dead. A copy of him might pop into existence some day, or some nearly identical sequence of events might produce someone nearly identical to him someday, but that would still be a different guy. And if universes don’t undergo eternal heat deaths, but collapse or explode on a regular basis (as ours is set to do), then there might never be a span of time enough to make a Boltzmann universe (although a Boltzmann brain, maybe). But even then, barring logical contradictions, even a sequence of short-lived universes might eventually make Boltzmann worlds. Ascertaining whether that will actually be impossible (and if possible, then it has a nonzero probability, and therefore will happen eventually) is a task perhaps beyond human ken.

But it doesn’t matter, because the point is, Boltzmann brains are an inevitability. In fact, because time will never end, there will be infinitely many of them. Boltzmann worlds, too. Which means Boltzmann gods are likewise inevitable…in fact, there will be (if there haven’t already been) infinitely many of them. What is a Boltzmann god? Think of a mind that is as near to perfection and power as could ever be physically made, a supermind, with a superbody, maybe even a body spanning and permeating a whole vast region of spacetime. The improbability of this is staggering. But remember, everything with a nonzero probability is going to happen, eventually. In fact, it’s going to happen infinitely many times. Only its relative frequency will be staggeringly low. Worlds without such lucky accidental gods will vastly (and I mean vaaaaasssstlyy) outnumber worlds with them. But the worlds lucky enough to get them will experience some pretty cool, or some pretty horrific, fates. In some, this god will be randomly evil and create civilizations just to torment them for fun (and let me reiterate: this may already have happened; in fact it may already be happening right now, in universes or regions of spacetime vastly beyond ours). In others, this god will be randomly awesome and create a paradise for his gentle children.

This will happen. It probably already has happened. It probably is happening as I type this. It’s a logically necessary truth. That’s weird. But there’s no escaping it. The only way this could ever be prevented is if time began, and were to end. Not the universe. Time itself. And not just time in our world, but in all worlds, all the spacetime continuums that exist beyond this one (if such there are). And there is no reason to believe that. Not only is there certainly no reason to expect time to end (there is no known physics on which it would–even the collapse of the universe will only create a ball of pressure so great that it will explode again into a new universe, with time still ticking; or seethe forever in a superdense state, time still ticking), but there is no reason even to expect that time ever began (we must assume it did if we grant P1, but if P1 is false…). Only Hawking’s nutshell model has time loop back in on itself at the Big Bang, and perhaps in an extremely unlikely scenario our universe may be one giant time loop somehow. But that’s just it: an extremely unlikely scenario.

Natural Gods or Supernatural Gods?

So Boltzmann gods are almost certainly an inevitability. Just immensely rarer than Boltzmann brains. Maybe even rarer than Boltzmann worlds, although many must surely be easier to randomly construct. They would be like the many different kinds of naturalistic gods I started talking about. Infinitely many configurations even under known physics would produce all kinds of gods of different sizes, powers, characters, of all degrees of intelligence and knowledge. These would in effect be alien gods, gods with bodies (however ephemeral or bizarre those bodies might be), gods with limitations. But they would be capable of anything gods of yore were, from immortality and superpowers, to intelligently creating universes and working scientific wonders (miracles, for all intents and purposes: see Clarke’s Third Law).

That’s what would distinguish them from just any Boltzmann brain, the ability to do those things; that’s what would classify them as accidental gods, and not just accidental people. And they need not even be accidental: we ourselves might one day create gods like this; we may even one day become gods like this. Barring an extremely unlikely disaster, a million years from now we will have the technology to accomplish either. And we are unlikely to be the only ones in this universe able to do this. In fact, in all probability, someone has done it already (statistically, we must have gotten started billions of years later than many civilizations in the cosmos). It’s just that, odds are, they are probably a billion galaxies away. And their gods, being physical beings with all the limitations that entails, won’t be able even to know we exist, much less communicate with us or lend us a hand.

Which is why many people don’t really allow these sorts of beings to be called “gods.” That is, this is not what people mean when they ask whether God exists, or insist that He does. Not even polytheists mean their gods to be distant aliens, accidental or manufactured. So the real question is not whether “gods” exist somewhere, in this or any of the universes that exist if P1 is true, but whether supernatural gods exist. Gods that don’t have the limitations and flaws of physical creatures. Gods that can be everywhere in the universe at once. Gods that aren’t slowed by the speed of light or weakened by the laws of thermodynamics. Invisible Gods that created our universe and hear our thoughts and meddle in our affairs, for good or ill. Gods that have constructed awesome heavenly places for us to go live in after we die (or horrific eternal prisons, as the case may be). Those kinds of Gods.

Certainly, if the question is, “If P1 is true, doesn’t that entail that there will be countless universes with all kinds of naturalistic gods in them, some accidental, some manufactured?” then the answer is “Yes.” Not only is that inevitably the case across any infinite array of purely naturalistic universes, but it’s inevitably the case in our own universe, where eventually there will indeed be Boltzmann brains, and far more rarely, but just as inevitably, Boltzmann gods; and sooner than either, gods of our own or alien manufacture. But what about supernatural gods? What about God?

The Probability of Supernatural Gods

As for monotheism, as I already pointed out, even if a supernatural One True God is logically possible (and as I’ll get to in a moment, I suspect it is not), then if P1 is true, the probability that this God exists is still infinitely close to zero: because infinitely many gods are possible, but God is here being defined as the one and only, and of all possible combinations of gods that could exist (in this universe alone, much less across all the infinite universes there would be), that only one would be selected to exist bears odds of many infinities to one against. It’s pretty much the most improbable thing humanly conceivable. In fact, it must necessarily have a probability of zero now, for the simple reason that once other gods exist, it becomes logically impossible for there ever to be one and only one God. So if all the infinite multiverses born of the original nothingness did not at that singular moment produce one and only one God over all of them (and him the most marvelous and perfect of all the singular gods there could have been), then that ship has sailed.

Since we observe there to be no such God in our universe, we know that no such God came to be. Therefore, none ever can come to be. But if you let go of your dogmatic and emotional need to “believe” in that extremely improbable God, and instead just clinically examine what possible gods are left, there could one day perhaps be a really supremely awesome “supernatural” Boltzmann God (or may even already be countless many of them, scattered across other universes we’re not in). If supernatural gods are logically possible. So that’s the question. But before we answer that, let’s explore the logical consequences of assuming that such gods are logically possible.

As I’ve noted, naturalistic Boltzmann gods will exist, but will be so extremely complex and improbable we will almost certainly never meet one (the only naturalistic gods we are likely to encounter are those we build ourselves). And those that exist across the multiverse, created spontaneously by the instantaneous transformation of the original nothingness, will be extraordinarily rare (and that’s an understatement). But what about supernatural gods? Obviously, by definition, you can’t randomly assemble those out of nonmental parts. How would one come to exist by accident then? They could only come to exist by the random assembly of irreducibly mental properties, supernatural “parts” as it were, and since we have no known physics of that, we can’t really run calculations for it (in the way we can, for example, in statistical mechanics).

However, we can approach something like a conceptual analog. Note that even a supernatural God is vastly complex in its constituent parts. Any mind must necessarily be, much more so a mind with powers beyond those of mere thought. Theists will insist that God is somehow simple in the sense of having no parts, or all his parts logically entailing each other and therefore inseparable, and so on and so forth, but that’s all just handwaving. Sound proofs are always wanting. There is no conceptual basis for thinking that any mind “must necessarily” be omnipotent or omniscient in any sense, or for thinking that any supernatural spirit “must necessarily” be omnipotent or omniscient in any sense, or that any creative intelligence must be, either. Certainly lesser deities, lesser spirits, lesser supernatural minds are logically possible. Therefore a God could be a lesser being. If we are to randomly produce a God from among all logically possible Gods (as P1 would entail we do, if supernatural gods are logically possible), then we will certainly not get an omni God of any sort. We will get a God of some lesser knowledge, intelligence, virtue, and power than the best we could logically get.

Thus most Gods will be lesser deities. Few to none will be anywhere near omni. But how many will there be, in terms of per-universe frequency, say? First of all, most universes with gods in them, will have vast numbers of gods in them (the number of logically possible universes with many gods is infinitely greater than the number with single gods in them). So already, universes with just one god in them, will not only in all probability have a lesser god, but such universes will be extraordinarily rare (and that’s a ridiculous understatement). Polytheistic worlds will be vastly more common. But secondly, a randomly produced supernatural god will not be much more probable than a natural Boltzmann god. The only thing in their favor is that, unlike natural Boltzmann gods, they won’t need a lot of superstructure to operate (e.g. no digestive system or equivalent, for example), and thus require a lot fewer parts. However, even natural Boltzmann brains do not require much superstructure relative to the complexity required of their brain to begin with. That is, almost all their improbability derives from the vast complexity of the brain itself (such as is required to generate a mind), in comparison with which the complexity of their bodies is trivial or incidental.

And that complexity will have to be shared by a supernatural mind, in two respects: (1) of all the possible combinations of mental contents and properties and their infinite degrees, godlike assemblies will be extremely few, relative to all the combinations that fall short of godlike; and (2) even mundane minds require vast complexity of organization, to produce a reliable system of beliefs and memories and of processing perceptions and contemplations. For example, to keep distinct the 500 or so faces our own brains are capable of memorizing, and correctly connect those faces to large systems of correct information about each face, and not get these connections all crossed up and confused, requires an extremely complex arrangement of neurons and synapses, any rearrangement of which would create confusion and error and literally eliminate information. A supernatural mind must also keep all this information inside it and also keep all these connections correctly linked up, which also requires a structure no less complex.

That structure might not be made of “stuff,” it might somehow be made of dreams or rainbows or bare supernatural brute facts or whatever, but the structure must still exist. Because of all the ways to connect up a supernatural mind, vastly more of them will be connected up all wrong, than will be connected up all right–much less connected up right for a superhuman scale of information and information processing. When picking random supernatural minds, most of them (by far) are going to be babbling lunatics or even completely nonfunctional spirits. After getting past those, of what remains, most (by far) will not be godlike. And after getting past those, of what remains, most (by far) will be truly minor gods. And after getting past those, of what remains, most (by far) will be merely mediocre gods. And so on. The number of gods who will be anything close to what Christians would want to worship, for example, is going to be infinitely fewer by comparison. In other words, the probability of any universe getting such a God in it is going to be well near infinity to one against. Even if the supernatural is logically possible.

So Is the Supernatural Logically Possible?

Still, if P1 is true, then it would still be the case that, in a broad sense, naturalism must be false, because supernatural things will inevitably exist, in some universes somewhere. If naturalism is true at all, it would only be true of our universe. But therein lies our first clue that the supernatural might in fact be logically impossible: the fact that we don’t observe anything supernatural operating in this universe. If it were in any way common for supernatural things to exist, certainly if they were as common as nonsupernatural things (and given P2, which is entailed by P1, why wouldn’t they be?), then our universe should be full of supernatural things, or at least have enough of them for many to have been scientifically confirmed by now. It would be extremely unlikely that we “just by chance” ended up in a completely supernatural-free universe (and no anthropic principle entails we would, either). Which in turn would entail that a supernatural god is impossible. Because if the supernatural is impossible, so are supernatural gods.

This is not a proof, however. There are extremely improbable ways that the supernatural could still exist and we would just happen never to have seen any. So at best this is evidence for the logical impossibility of the supernatural. Unless, of course, P1 is false. Then perhaps the supernatural is logically possible but just happens never to have become actual, owing to something (?) that prevents it. Although even then it would have to be possible to create supernatural things in this or some other universe. Because what it is to be a possible thing is to be a potential thing. That a triangle made of freshly severed dinosaur heads is “logically possible” means that any region of spacetime can (in principle) be configured to produce it. In fact, that very reconfiguration is what it means to be a triangle made of freshly severed dinosaur heads: it’s what the sentence “there is a triangle made of freshly severed dinosaur heads” means, such that if we didn’t know (at least in outline) what configuration of spacetime would make that statement true, then we literally wouldn’t know what that statement meant. (See Sense and Goodness without God II.2-III, pp. 27-208.)

So how exactly would we reconfigure spacetime to produce a supernatural property? That question is meaningless, because the supernatural by definition is not reducible to configurations of spacetime (it’s irreducible mental stuff, not spacetime stuff). So in what sense is the supernatural ever a “potential” property of anything in spacetime, much less of spacetime itself? I confess I cannot conceive of how it ever could be. But that again is not a proof, because many things we cannot conceive of are nevertheless true. Our inability to conceive of something only demonstrates our ignorance–which ignorance can be produced either by something not being possible or by our simply not knowing what makes it possible.

Maybe the supernatural is prohibited from existing by the laws of physics, which laws, if we could change them, would allow the supernatural again. I don’t know (I doubt it). But the point is, if P1 is false, then so is P2. So then the supernatural no longer has the same probability as the natural, and might even have a probability of zero, if something just happens to always have existed that prevents it from existing, something that does not necessarily exist, but just always has for no reason (the way God is supposed to always have existed for no reason). Although I confess that P1 is so surprisingly successful and simple an explanation for all that we observe (as I proved yesterday), I almost think it would be amazing if it wasn’t true. And anyway, I still have to ask whether the supernatural is logically possible. Since if P1 is true, then the truth of naturalism, in the grand scheme, requires the supernatural not merely to be nonexistent, but to be logically impossible. Because otherwise, the supernatural necessarily exists. Somewhere. Even if it’s not around here.

But again, that there isn’t any around here is clue number one that the supernatural is logically impossible after all.

On the Conceivability of Disembodied Minds

Although it’s obvious that an inability to conceive of something in no way proves it is impossible, I used to think that if something was conceivable, it must be logically possible (this is a working assumption evident, for example, in my 2004 critique of Reppert’s Argument from Reason). I now know there is one major flaw in that assumption, discussing which is how I shall end today’s meditation on the possibility of God.

First, it must be noted that many things (in fact, countlessly many things) are logically impossible that we do not know and at present cannot know are such (likewise things which are logically necessary). This is often overlooked, as it is assumed that if something is logically impossible, that fact should be obvious. But consider as an example Fermat’s Last Theorem, which simply states “no three positive integers a, b, and c can satisfy the equation a^n + b^n = c^n for any integer value of n greater than two.” Now, this statement was either necessarily false, or necessarily true. Thus, we either had a logically necessary truth, or a logical impossibility. Yet no one could prove which it was, for almost four hundred years. Only very recently did anyone prove that it was, after all, true (and therefore logically necessary). In fact, since it’s a statement declaring something to be logically impossible, by proving it’s true we had discovered something that is logically impossible. Many attempts had been made to prove this statement, which convinced people for a short time but were found upon further examination to be invalid or unsound (thus we can fool ourselves into believing something is logically possible or impossible, even when it isn’t). Finally, the proof that finally proved valid and sound, was over a hundred pages long. There was clearly nothing obvious about this statement of logical impossibility. And proving it required an extraordinarily arduous series of thousands of statements.

I provide this example to make a crucial point: if God is logically impossible, it could well be that the proof of this fact will require a hundred pages of propositions, and four hundred more years to discover. If anyone is even looking for it–unlike the quest to prove Fermat’s last theorem, to my knowledge no one is (they are only looking for simple proofs, of which there may be none). So it may never be discovered. Thus the fact that no such proof has been discovered is not a valid argument against the logical impossibility of God, any more than it would have been an argument against the logical impossibility of the equation in Fermat’s last theorem, or an argument against the logical impossibility of countless other logically impossible things we have yet to discover or may never do. Thus, suspecting the logical impossibility of God does not require a formal proof of its impossibility. We can have clues enough, as there were in the case of Fermat’s last theorem.

Second, it must be noted that concepts do not entail realities. Concepts, in the sense of potential entities (and not in the different sense of entertained or encoded thoughts), can exist necessarily, and exist always and everywhere, but concepts can’t think and act. Many ontological arguments for the existence of God are actually disguised arguments for the existence of the concept of God. But a concept of a God is not itself a God. That people can conceive of an entity is simply not the same thing as that entity existing. Fiction affords too many examples for me to have to belabor the point.

But here’s the rub. Even in terms of probabilities on cosmic scales, not every fiction will materialize. The movie Star Wars will never be acted out for real, not even in some vastly distant Boltzmann world, because it actually incorporates logical impossibilities (such as sound in a vacuum), systemic impossibilities (any civilization with such technology would not use humans to aim ship-to-ship weaponry, much less engage spaceships at proximities that even American naval commanders would consider absurd, which facts entail actual logical impossibilities between the human intelligence displayed in the film, and such stupid behaviors), and, of course, physical impossibilities (such as The Force, which as represented in the film no configuration of our universe, outside of computer simulated universes–take note–could ever produce, not at any probability).

This example is again crucial: we do not notice anything logically impossible about Star Wars; indeed, we are watching it, so how can it be logically impossible? But of course we are not actually watching Star Wars happen in reality. We are watching a dramatization that covertly persuades our brains to imagine that what is happening is happening, when in fact none of it actually is. Except, of course, in the “fourth wall” sense: filming the movie Star Wars is not logically impossible, but that’s all just trickery, the statements the characters make are literally false, the actors are not the characters they portray but are only pretending to be, the space battles were not filmed in outer space, and so on. When we actually try to translate all this into a real world system, only then will we notice the logical impossibilities that prevent any such drama from ever actually occurring, not at any probability, no matter how vanishingly small.

This is like Fermat’s Last Theorem: we can “imagine” that 2^45 + 3^45 = 4^45 is a true proposition. Especially if we don’t know how to run the math or lack a calculator to test it with. We can still understand every symbol, and the meaning of the statement as a whole. And there is no obvious contradiction among these parts. Indeed, we could even run the math with a calculator, make an error we didn’t catch, and thus conclude that that statement is indeed true after all! It happens to be false. In fact, not just false, but logically impossible. Yet that does not prevent our brains from imagining, even believing it is true. Thus, we can conceive of something as being true, that in fact is impossible. Therefore, our being able to conceive of something does not mean it is logically possible. And the more complex the thing we are asked to imagine, the easier it will be for us to overlook any logical impossibilities in its arrangement. We instead busy ourselves with imagining the parts and their juxtaposition. But that’s not the same thing.

The reason we are susceptible to this error is that when we imagine and conceive, we build models using pieces of things we know exist. We know light exists. We know swords exist. So why not a sword made out of light? We do not trouble ourselves with working out, first, how it could possibly be that a light saber has a practical finite length, and can be stopped (and with a loud report) by another beam of light just like the colliding of swords. Even lasers that could cut us in half cannot “ricochet” off of other laser beams like swords. They would pass right through each other. But we understand how lasers work. We understand how swords work. So we build a model of laser swords in our head, borrowing the bits we want from each. But that in no way entails we could ever actually make a light saber. In this case such a thing at least is “logically” possible (the technology would be needlessly elaborate, whereas just cutting the guy in half with an actual laser would be easier; there’s a reason police and soldiers don’t fight much with swords anymore). But the point is, its physical impossibility does not for a moment deter us from imagining it, either. In fact, we can imagine it without even working out whether it is possible or not to build one. Because we are using models from other things and superficially combining them, not troubling ourselves with “checking the math” that would be necessary to connect them. Just like imagining, or even convincing ourselves, that 2^45 + 3^45 = 4^45.

In a computer simulated universe, of course, we could have working light sabers, and sounds in space, and all manner of absurdly constructed worlds, but only because the elaborate physical machinery underlying the simulation connects all the logical and physical dots to make that happen. In other words, the logical possibility of all these things is dependent on being run as a simulation in a computer, whether a game console, a futuristic Matrix, or (as we usually settle for) the human brain. Take away that substructure, and many of these things are no longer physically or in some cases even logically possible. Thus being able to simulate something does not mean its existence is possible outside the simulation. Being able to simulate it only proves that it is logically possible for it to exist in a sim; in other words, it is possible as a sim. But outside a sim, it could well be logically impossible. Just as Star Wars certainly is.

And this is where we get to the problem of disembodied minds. When we simulate things in the computer of our minds, we can indeed simulate light sabers without any of the elaborate technology that would actually be needed to make a real light saber, we can indeed simulate sounds in space, and impossible conjunctions of intelligence and stupidity (a common feature of fiction well mocked in Galaxy Quest: “What is this thing? I mean there’s no useful purpose for there to be a bunch of choppy, crushy things in the middle of a hallway!” “Relax, Gwen.” “No! I mean we shouldn’t have to do this! It makes no logical sense! Why is this here?!”). But we can only do that because we have a complex machine to do it with: our brains. So instead of the elaborate technology needed to make an actual light saber, we are using the elaborate technology of a brain to do all the same work. The logical and physical possibility of a light saber in our imagination is therefore dependent on a physical brain of staggering complexity.

For this reason, the mere fact that we can imagine something, that we can conceive of it, does not mean it is logically possible. Because it might only be logically possible inside a computer system simulating it (in this case, that being our brain). We can’t “conceive” of something apart from the machinery of our brain, so we can’t ever actually test the logical possibility of something outside our brain. We can only ever test the logical possibility of simulating something in a brain. And that’s a significant limitation we cannot overlook. We think we can imagine a god not dependent on a material brain, but in fact we can’t. We can only imagine a god dependent on a material brain: ours. The fact that “god sims” can only be run on a physical brain actually argues that god cannot exist outside of a physical framework to give rise to him. (Of course, I am assuming science has well nigh proven that minds do not exist but for complex physical brains: see Sense and Goodness without God III.6, pp. 135-60; The End of Christianity, pp. 298-302, 305-32; and my Argument from Mind-Brain Dysteleology.) So is God really conceivable outside of a complex simulation machine? Probably not.

Think about it: we know that a light saber in our brain is dependent on complex neural machinery to maintain its juxtaposition of properties, but that outside our brain that juxtaposition would require a vastly more complicated machinery (which in fact we know nothing about; and need not know anything about to simulate the device in our brains). So what reason do we have to believe God is any different? If you think about it, a light saber without any underlying machinery starts to look fairly inconceivable. And it may well be logically impossible. Because if it wasn’t, surely we would have seen countless examples by now of “property conjunctions” without the underlying machinery. Yet in fact, after trillions of dollars and billions of man hours of hard core science across four centuries, we have never discovered even one case. Instead, we have found, in billions upon billions of cases across every discipline and area of human experience, that nothing exists without that underlying machinery. Like Fermat’s impossible quadratic, this counts in the evidence column for God being just as impossible. All supernatural things, in fact. So clue number one is pretty strong.

Clue number two is the fact that mental things are actually structurally complex by definition. I made this point about minds earlier. What maintains the “structure” of God’s mind? Rainbows? Bare supernatural brute facts? What are those exactly? Because I actually can’t conceive of anything that would work. Again, that’s not a proof, but in the right context it can be evidence against. It seems obvious that structure requires actually existing things to hold that structure. If nothing exists holding it together, then by definition nothing is holding it together. It’s circular to argue that what’s holding it together is the disembodied mental concepts themselves. Concepts can’t think or act; so disembodied mental concepts can’t “do” things either. They can’t have physical relationships to each other. They can’t have structure. They can have the concept of structure, but again concepts can’t do things; and they can have structure when we simulate them in our brains, but that gets us right back to the point: that appears to be the only way they can ever actually exist.

This is popularly known as the Argument from Physical Minds. I’ve defended an empirical version of it before, but here I am making a logical argument from physical minds: my point is that a nonphysical mind appears to be logically impossible, and not merely non-existent. I cannot prove this. But as for Fermat’s Last Theorem, that proof may be too complex, and may never be discovered. That doesn’t mean I’m wrong. The consequence of this is that if the supernatural is logically impossible, then naturalism is necessarily true. Belief in the possibility of the supernatural is then merely a cognitive error (which psychological science has more or less confirmed, as Victor Stenger explains in The End of Christianity, p. 312, with refs. in n. 27, p. 416), akin to believing that Star Wars could really happen, or that 2^45 + 3^45 = 4^45.

Is that the case? I suspect it is.

Ex Nihilo Onus Merdae Fit

A common argument against atheism is that the Big Bang proves everything had a beginning (it does not in fact prove that, but bear with me here), therefore there was once nothing, and ex nihilo nihil fit, “from nothing, comes nothing.” However, that latter premise is demonstrably false. And that spells death for theism and marvelous glory for atheism. And I don’t even mean in the Lawrence Krauss A Universe from Nothing sense, since he doesn’t actually mean “nothing” when he talks about nothing (a point I’ll get back to in a moment). No, I mean, even granting the theist’s premise that if there was no God, then there was once absolutely nothing, and therefore there cannot have been a universe, therefore the fact that we are here entails God exists, because our existence would be literally impossible otherwise. I am saying that even granting that premise, all those “therefores” don’t actually follow. They are complete non sequiturs. In fact, I am not just saying that; I’m even saying that the exact opposite is true, that when we grant that premise (the theist’s own premise!), then a whole shitload of stuff will necessarily exist. Huwah? Yeah. And not a pejorative load of shit. An actual shitload.

I’ve been asked to explain this so many times lately (going all the way back to Mike Licona in our second debate) that I’ve decided to blog it so I can just point people here (that’s kind of the reason for everything I write, really).

I am an empiricist, which means I don’t truck with a priori reasoning. But there is one good use for the latter: to deduce from a hypothesis what would be the case if that hypothesis were true (and what the case if it were false); because then you can go look and see what you observe and thus determine how likely it is that that hypothesis is true (or false). This is the basic foundation of scientific method, the “hypothetico-deductive method” (which in Proving History I demonstrate is fundamentally Bayesian, but I won’t go on about that here). This is not actually a priori, because you still have to go looking around, and your conclusion is never absolutely certain but always some matter of probability. So here I am not saying there ever was nothing. There might well have always been something. Or quite a lot of things really. The argument that that is impossible, owing to confusions about infinite sets, is also bogus, and based on fundamental ignorance of logic and mathematics (as I’ve explained before).

So I am not actually conceding the premise that there was once absolutely nothing. I’m just analyzing that as a hypothesis, to see what it entails if it were true. So here goes…

Which ‘Nothing’ Is That Again?

First we must define “absolutely nothing.” There are actually many different kinds of nothing (John Barrow even wrote a book about it: The Book of Nothing). Krauss, for example, means by “nothing” a collapsed region of space-time governed by certain laws of quantum physics. But that’s not actually nothing. For one thing, you have space-time. That’s something. And you have “certain laws of quantum physics” (a minimal set of which he describes, and which, if it always existed, he shows would entail that a universe would arise spontaneously very much like ours, no God needed; which conclusion was also reached and demonstrated by Stephen Hawking in The Grand Design, and likewise by Victor Stenger in God: The Failed Hypothesis, pp. 132-33, with extensive support in The Fallacy of Fine Tuning and The Comprehensible Cosmos). That’s also something. Quite a few things, really. Now, Stenger has made a case (in The Comprehensible Cosmos) that those “few things” are in fact logically necessary if we presume no God exists (and thus no agency exists to decide the world should be one way rather than another); for example, if no agency exists to entail an objective reference frame or to alter the outcomes of random events, then the whole of Relativity Theory is logically entailed by default, and likewise all the laws of thermodynamics. It’s an interesting argument, but not one I will assume as proven here.

Really, my only task at present is to define what we must mean by absolutely nothing. This can only mean that nothing whatever exists except anything whose non-existence is logically impossible. That latter caveat is unavoidable for the obvious reason that if it is logically impossible for something not to exist, then there can’t have ever been a state of being where it did not exist. So if by “absolutely nothing” you mean even the non-existence of logically necessary things, then “absolutely nothing” is logically impossible, and thus there can’t ever have been “nothing” in that sense. So if that’s what theists mean by “if there was no God, then there was once absolutely nothing,” that not even logically necessary things existed, then their claim is self-refuting. We can then dismiss it out of hand. But if they allow that logically necessary things still exist even when there is otherwise nothing, then we have a “nothing exists” that is logically possible. There could have been such a state of being, of there once being nothing, in that sense.

Of course, theists will then want to introduce their ontological arguments at this point, which purport to prove that God is one of those things whose existence is logically necessary, but no such argument ever succeeds. They are all invalid or unsound (the clearest demonstration of this is to be found in Malcolm Murray’s most excellent desk reference for atheists, The Atheist’s Primer, pp. 55-73). And one could in principle pull a Victor Stenger here instead, and aim to prove that certain basic laws of physics are logically necessary. And such a task might even succeed.

But I’m not depending on any such proposal here. All I will assume is what is undeniably true: that all the fundamental propositions of logic and mathematics are necessarily true (for example, all valid and sound theorems and syllogisms are necessarily true, in the sense that, when given their premises, their conclusions cannot be false; but not in the sense that their premises are necessarily true, even if they might be), and therefore there can never have been a state of being in which they were false. For example, it can never have been the case that “if you form a polygon from only straight lines, on a flat plane, with only three sides, then the sum of the angles produced within that polygon will not equal 180 degrees.” More importantly, it can never have been the case that the basic laws of probability were false (such as complementarity, unity, and exclusivity), nor can the basic laws of logic have ever been false (as that would be logically impossible by definition; that is, to say that the laws of logic are false, is by definition to say that logically impossible things can exist, and therefore logically necessary things can in that case not exist after all…so much for God!).

One might object at this point by asking how the laws of logic can “exist” when nothing exists. There are two ways to answer that, one is to refer to the naturalist ontology of logic, whereby things like numbers and laws describe what always potentially exists, even when nothing actually exists (see my book Sense and Goodness without God III.5, pp. 119-34, esp. III.5.4-5, pp. 124-34), and when nothing actually exists, all potentials exist (because then nothing actually exists to prevent anything from potentially existing, which point I’ll revisit in a moment). But another is to simply refer back to the simple point that if the laws of logic don’t exist, then by definition that means logically impossible things can exist. Which is fine if you really want to entertain that as a hypothesis. Good luck with that (I don’t think you’ll get very far: Sense and Goodness without God II.2.2.7, pp. 42-43, and III.9.3, pp. 188-91). Meanwhile, I will simply take it as granted by all sane parties that logically impossible things can’t exist. Certainly, that is a premise most theists must accept. At least, if you can really get them to deny it, then you’ve pretty much gotten them to publicly confess to being crazy. And one hardly need continue arguing with a confessed lunatic.

Now, when nothing exists (except that which is logically necessary), then anything can happen (whose happening is logically possible). Because the only way to prevent something from happening, is to have some law or force or power or object or agency, in other words some actual thing, that prevents it. If you remove all obstacles, you allow all possibilities. This is a logically necessary truth. The only thing that is prevented, is the logically impossible. Because, as we have concluded so far, even when “nothing” exists, all logically necessary truths still exist. And here “exist” means only in the sense of being true; obviously the laws of logic aren’t made of aluminum-titanium alloy with a mass of twelve earths and located precisely one light year below galactic south; it is a fallacious prejudice to assume “existence” requires mass, substance, or discrete location, although perhaps it does require something.

For instance, I have argued that that which exists at no location or at no point in time, by definition exists never and nowhere, which is by definition not existing. So one might think that if nothing exists, no place or time exists, therefore logical truths cannot exist. However, since it is logically impossible for logical truths not to exist, if logical truths must exist at some point in spacetime, then it would follow that spacetime is logically necessary and therefore there can be no “absolute nothing” that lacks at least a singular point of spacetime (which is of course practically nothing). Thus logical necessity can prevent things from happening. But if that’s all there is, then everything else can happen, because nothing exists to prevent it.

And So the Baby Goes Out with the Bathwater…

This is why ex nihilo nihil fit is necessarily false. For that is a law. And a law is not nothing. A law is something. To say that “from nothing comes only nothing” is to say that some law of physics (like, say, the law of conservation of energy) exists to prevent nothing from generating anything else except more nothing. But if nothing exists, then that law of physics doesn’t exist. Since it is not logically necessary that nothing can only produce nothing, then when nothing exists except what is logically necessary, the law ex nihilo nihil fit doesn’t exist either. Therefore, that “absolute nothing” that once existed will not have been governed by such a law. It cannot have been. Because if it were, it would then not be nothing, but the inexplicable and arbitrary existence of something: a weird law of physics with no origin or agency. Thus it is a logical contradiction to say “there once was absolutely nothing, and that absolute nothing can only have produced nothing.”

From here on out it only gets worse for the theist. Not only will there have been nothing to prevent anything from happening, there won’t have been anything to make any one thing more likely than any other. For example, quantum mechanics entails that some things are more likely than other things; if whatever the fundamental structure is that causes quantum mechanics to work didn’t exist, then some things would not be more likely than other things. Everything would be as likely as anything else. Because the only way to make one thing more likely than something else, is for something to exist that makes the one thing more likely than the other. In some cases, logical necessity can do that. But not in every case. The number of universes that exist, for example. There is no logical necessity for there to be only one universe. Or any other specific number of them. And if nothing exists to decide how many there will be, all possible outcomes are equally likely. There being just one universe will be just as likely as there being seven of them, or a million of them, or any other number of them. And if we count all configurations, then smaller numbers actually become less probable than larger ones (as I’ll demonstrate shortly).

Getting Everything from Nothing

I draw out the consequences of this fact in The End of Christianity (ch. 12, “Neither Life Nor the Universe Appear Intelligently Designed,” note 20, pp. 408-09). I quote the relevant material here:

In our background knowledge b we have no knowledge of any law of physics that would prevent there being other universes (and no means of seeing if there are none), so the probability that there are is exactly what that probability would be if the number of universes that exist were selected at random. Of all the possible conditions that could obtain (no universe; just one universe; two universes; three; four; etc., all the way to infinitely many universes), that there would be only one universe is only one out of infinitely many alternatives. This entails it is effectively 100 percent certain an infinite multiverse exists because the probability of there being only one universe is then 1/INFINITY, which is [approximately] 0 percent. In fact, for any finite number n of universes, the probability of having only that many or less is n/INFINITY, which is still [approximately] 0 percent. If the probability of having any finite number of universes is always [approximately] 0 percent, then the probability that there is an infinite multiverse is [approximately] 100 percent. This further entails we have no need to explain why there is something rather than nothing: as then nothing (a state of exactly zero universes) also has a probability of 1/INFINITY, which is again [approximately] 0 percent. The probability that there will be something rather than nothing is therefore [approximately] 100 percent. This conclusion can only be averted if something were proved to exist that would change any of these probabilities, thereby making nothing (or only one thing) more likely than any other logical possibility. But we know of no such thing. Therefore, so far as we must conclude given what we actually know, there is an infinite multiverse, and there must necessarily be an infinite multiverse (both to a certainty of [approximately] 100 percent).

This is an epistemological argument (it does not claim to prove there is an infinite multiverse, but only that so far as we know there is; some future knowledge might change that conclusion). But if we grant the metaphysical premise “there was once absolutely nothing,” then this epistemological argument becomes a metaphysical argument: it is then logically necessarily the case that there is an infinite multiverse.

Therefore, if we grant the theist’s premise, that there was once absolutely nothing (no spacetime, no God, and no laws of physics, beyond those that may be logically necessary), it necessarily follows that there is an infinite multiverse (or to be more precise, the probability that there wouldn’t be is infinitely near to zero). From a simple demonstration of probability, it then follows that the universe we find ourselves in will also necessarily exist (or again to be precise, the probability that a universe essentially like ours wouldn’t exist is infinitely near to zero). Therefore, the theist’s own premise entails a godless universe will exist that looks exactly (in all relevant particulars) like the one we find ourselves in. Ooops.

Proving It

The formalization of the argument proceeds as follows:

  • P1: In the beginning, there was absolutely nothing.
    -
  • P2: If there was absolutely nothing, then (apart from logical necessity) nothing existed to prevent anything from happening or to make any one thing happening more likely than any other thing.
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  • C1: Therefore, in the beginning, nothing existed to prevent anything from happening or to make any one thing happening more likely than any other thing.
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  • P3: Of all the logically possible things that can happen when nothing exists to prevent them from happening, continuing to be nothing is one thing, one universe popping into existence is another thing, two universes popping into existence is yet another thing, and so on all the way to infinitely many universes popping into existence, and likewise for every cardinality of infinity, and every configuration of universes.
    -
  • C2: Therefore [given logical necessity], continuing to be nothing was no more likely than one universe popping into existence, which was no more likely than two universes popping into existence, which was no more likely than infinitely many universes popping into existence, which was no more likely than any other particular number or cardinality of universes popping into existence.
    -
  • P4: If each outcome (0 universes, 1 universe, 2 universes, etc. all the way to aleph-0 universes, aleph-1 universes, etc. [note that there is more than one infinity in this sequence]) is no more likely than the next, then the probability of any finite number of universes (including zero universes) or less having popped into existence is infinitely close to zero, and the probability of some infinite number of universes having popped into existence is infinitely close to one hundred percent.
    -
  • C3: Therefore, the probability of some infinite number of universes having popped into existence is infinitely close to one hundred percent.
    -
  • P5: If there are infinitely many universes, and our universe has a nonzero probability of existing (as by existing it proves it does, via cogito ergo sum), then the probability that our universe would exist is infinitely close to one hundred percent (because any nonzero probability approaches one hundred percent as the number of selections approaches infinity, via the infinite monkey theorem, similar to the law of large numbers).
    -
  • C4: Therefore, if in the beginning there was absolutely nothing, then the probability that our universe would exist is infinitely close to one hundred percent.

I’ve already shown that P1, once granted, entails P2. And P4 and P5 are logically necessary truths (they can only be false if the basic laws of logic and probability are false, which, as I said, is by definition logically impossible). And C1-4 are all logically necessary if P1-5 are true (given the following connotation of P3). So that leaves P3. There are two objections sometimes raised against it. The first is that it is incomplete; the second is that its demarcation of possibilities is arbitrary or contrary to set theory. [Another objection, that infinite probability distributions are impossible, is simply false.]

As to the first objection, (1) there are presumably things that can pop into existence besides universes; and (2) there are many different kinds of universes possible, so each number of universes would represent an infinitely divided fraction of possible combinations of that many universes.

As for (2), that makes no difference to the argument. As long as nothing existed to make any particular universe more likely than any other (and given P1 and P2, nothing did), then C2 as stated remains true on P3. For example, “zero universes” would be infinitely less probable than one universe if we counted each of infinitely many singular universes as being equally likely as any other outcome, but if that’s the case, then zero universes remains no more probable than one universe, as C2 states; and in consequence, P4 also remains true as stated. And likewise for every number of universes above that. Such considerations are therefore irrelevant.

As to (1), if we define “universe” as “any collection of actually existing things (whether it consists of just one thing or several) that is completely separated from other collections or in some way connected to other collections but entails a fundamentally different physics from them,” then P3 remains true, and so on down the line. Because then by definition nothing else can pop into existence but some universe or other. What then distinguishes one universe from another (thereby making two universes, instead of just one universe consisting of two combined collections) is a fundamental separation or a fundamental difference in its governing physics. In the latter case those universes won’t be physically separated, but in the unity of them both, one physics will govern one region and another physics will govern the other, making for two universes, even if, for instance, they are both just different parts of one combined region of spacetime. [You could still count this binary universe as one universe, but then you would have to count its twin as one universe, i.e. a universe otherwise identical but in which the relative positions of each distinguished region are swapped in the same space-time manifold, so you still get two universes, each as likely as the other.]

This leads to the second objection: that this demarcation is improper. Isn’t one “metaverse” with two different regions of governing physics more complex than one single universe with only one governing physics, and therefore isn’t the former much less probable than the latter? Actually, no. Because we are selecting at random from the set of all possible states of being. For example, one binary metaverse will be one state of being, while a singular universe will be another state of being. Therefore the probability of selecting one or the other is equal, because in each case there is only one possibility that can manifest, and the sum of those possibilities is two. And in fact, once we start counting configurations, the odds go in the other direction. Think of a bag of infinite marbles, inside each of which is a possible outcome (a number and configuration of universes). Will it be more likely that you will draw a “one universe” marble than a “two universe” marble? To the contrary, there are far more possible configurations of two universes, so in fact there are far more “two universe” marbles in that bag than “one universe” marbles. Therefore, choosing a “one universe” outcome is not more probable than choosing a “two universe” outcome (in fact it is on this reasoning a great deal less probable). Thus, P3 as stated remains true and (in conjunction with C1) entails C2 as stated.

Therefore C2 remains true, therefore C3 remains true, and there must then be an infinite multiverse, if in the beginning there existed absolutely nothing. And that means C4 remains true, and our universe, in effect, necessarily exists. This leaves the theist in a bind. If we start with their assumption that (if there was no God) there was once absolutely nothing, then we get our universe, no God needed. There can be no doubt that “absolutely nothing” is a vastly simpler entity than any God (much less their preferred God, who just happens to have all these convenient powers and properties, and not only that, but just happens to have them in infinite degree, which has to be the luckiest existential dice roll conceivable). So if a vastly simpler hypothesis explains all the evidence, we must prefer it (because it is necessarily vastly more probable: see Proving History, pp. 81, 104-06). In other words, Occam’s Razor slits God’s throat right good.

Winning the Whac-a-Mole Twostep

But maybe P1 is false. Certainly, the theist must retreat to insisting it is, now that we’ve just proven P1 explains the universe better than his God does. Well, then something has always existed (or just existed in the beginning for no reason, either way). They say it is God. We would say it is something decidedly ungodlike; namely, a very basic physics. In other words, the basic physical assumptions of Krauss, Hawking, or Stenger. Or anyone else. It doesn’t matter. As I’ve explained before, we don’t need to know which originating physics began it all, to know it’s far more probable that some such thing did than that a god did (upon request I even postulated ten different possibilities, all of which having a greater prior probability than a God). For Krauss, Hawking, and Stenger, it’s a simple quantum vacuum (whose properties are much more basic than God’s, and every single one of which has been scientifically proven to exist, unlike any of the unique properties of God, much less his existence), from which they can deduce the universe we observe. In fact, as I prove in The End of Christianity (ch. 12, “Neither Life Nor the Universe Appear Intelligently Designed”), the scientific evidence conclusively fits the deductive predictions of that hypothesis, in precisely the way it doesn’t fit the deductive predictions of any plausible God. So if something always existed for no reason, and our options are that this something was either God or a simple quantum vacuum, the evidence confirms it was the latter. And if that’s the case, then quantum vacuum it is.