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.
    -
  • 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.
    -
  • 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.

Appearing in Orange County

This May (Saturday and Sunday the 19th and 20th, 2012, with a pub meet on Friday) the Orange County Freethought Alliance (consisting of 24 secular groups in the Orange County area; that’s in southern California for those not in-the-know) is holding its third annual conference. I will be among the invited speakers and attendees. The conference theme is “Comparing the World Contributions: Science and Religion” (otherwise known as the millennial smackdown). My talk will be “Newsflash! Fine Tuning Proves There Is No God,” summarizing my key findings on the cosmological argument in The End of Christianity (chapter 12, “Neither Life Nor the Universe Appear Intelligently Designed”) and tying that in to the role of divine communication and “theology” as a method of knowing about the universe and God’s plan. It will be just a half hour presentation, then fifteen minutes of Q&A. But I’ll be attending the whole conference and would love to meet people from all over while I’m there.

The full list of speakers is pretty awesome: Michael Shermer, Bob Price, Phil Zuckerman, Dave Silverman, Aron Ra, Jim Underdown, Barbara Forrest, Brian Dunning, Dave Richards (of the local IIG), Heina Dadabhoy (of Skepchick fame), Dan Barker, and Mr. Deity. Barker will also be participating in a debate during the conference, with some stock theist or other out of central casting. There are a variety of different registration fees and other possible expenses (see here  and here to assess them all and get a complete idea of what the options are), and it can sell out (if it hasn’t already), so act fast!

I’m speaking that Sunday afternoon (3pm) Saturday night (8pm), at least according to the current schedule (there will be a panel Q&A later). The conference is being held on the campus of UC Irvine, at the campus Student Center (I don’t know where the Friday pub meet will be or where any of the meals and such will be served, but presumably you can find out at the UCI Student Center). On Saturday will be an afternoon session from 12pm to 5pm followed by the Barker-[Stock Godist] debate that evening. Sunday will be a morning session starting at 9am, and an afternoon session ending at 5pm. (The website’s front page is a bit wonky right now, but you can find the current schedule here.)

Some of my books will be sold throughout the conference by the OCFA (if you want, just bring any of those up to me later and I’ll sign them; ditto any books you already own and happen to bring). But I will also have a special sale at my own table after my talk for fifteen minutes (I earn the most from those sales). My new book Proving History will only be sold at the OCFA table (although if they run out, talk to me about possibly finding a couple more in the trunk of my car).

I have a lot of other appearances coming up, which I’ll be blogging soon. But this is the first one to get all its details together and up on a website (and it’s by registration only, so you’ll want to secure a spot early).

Amazing Proofs of Jesus!

There seems to be an odd rise the last year or so in forgeries or other bogus claims of “archaeological” finds attesting to first century Christianity. In actual fact, we have no (that’s zero) archaeological evidence pertaining to Jesus or Christians from the first century (and very, very little even from the second). But last year there was a claim of some mysterious find of “lead codices” that was quickly exploded by experts as a fraud (see my summary: Lead Tablets of Jesus!).

And this year already two wild claims have started circulating. First, that a “first century” manuscript of the Gospel of Mark has been found (claimed by the quasi-fundamentalist Christian scholar Dan Wallace, during a debate with Bart Ehrman), by which is meant, a tiny fragment of a few incomplete words (shown at right, if this is the manuscript in question; you see, no one has come forward as its owner or stated even where it is, not even Wallace, who nevertheless wants to make a big splash with a book about it next year–there is always some money-making angle with these things).

Like the lead codices story, which became big international news before anyone was consulted who actually knows what they are talking about, this, too, has quickly become news, already garnering an article in Forbes (and, I’m told, even making TV news). But alas, it’s dubious for two reasons: first, no one will say where the manuscript is (it therefore is unlikely to be in any academic institution; as such it would already have an accession number and alphanumeric identifier, and of course they would insist on being identified); second, if the image circulating is the same fragment (the image’s authenticity has not been established; it appears to have been “leaked” by a “private collector,” supposedly its owner), it’s far more likely to be a fake than an authentic manuscript at all, much less from the first century (indeed as a forgery, it’s so crappy, the best argument against it being fake is that it was so badly faked: the papyrus shows no fray lines, the scribal lines are not evenly spaced, the lettering is inconsistent, and there are no other typical indicators of authenticity). Several heavy-hitting experts have weighed in on this, all in the “give me a break” column. You can find links to their reports on Thomas Verenna’s blog (here and here).

And now a new claim is going around that an early “first century” tomb has been found in Jerusalem that provides the earliest evidence of Christianity ever found. This was a discovery made by the same bozos who touted the “Jesus tomb” a while back (more on that shortly), and I’m really bothered by James Tabor’s continual involvement with them. He’s a great guy, but he’s really not coming off well here. The only evidence that this is any such thing as they claim (other than just another Jewish tomb) is a barely intelligible inscription and a barely decipherable carving. Each in turn:

(1) The inscription is in Greek and “might” say “God Yahweh Raises [Agb]” or some such, but doesn’t. The verb is not in fact there. Tabor just “conjectures” that hypsô is an abbreviated third person form of the verb hypsô [hypsôsen] and that it means “to raise up,” but the verb hypsô actually means to “lift up” as in “exalt,” and there are other things hypsô could be an abbreviation for (like hyps[ist]ô, “to the highest”), and it could even just be the verb hypsô, “I exalt [thee]” and so on (e.g., the agb could be hagiô, the omega ligatured to the iota, in which case it’s “to the holy and most high,” etc.). Point is, it’s unclear. Moreover, even if it were a verb of resurrection (though this would be the rarest verb used for that, even in Christian literature), the entire point of Jews reburying the bones of their dead in ossuaries was to facilitate their resurrection; so declaring that God would raise the inhabitant (possibly the person whose name begins with Agb) is exactly in line with Jewish thinking and thus not at all indicative of any peculiarly Christian sentiment.

(2) The carving is being claimed as a fat-headed stick-figure man in the mouth of a weird fish, and therefore the earliest known depiction of Jonah in the Whale, known in later centuries as a common Christian symbol of personal salvation and resurrection. But as experts have pointed out, it is far more likely an amateur carving of a nephesh, or Jewish tomb monument, with eaves and pinnacle, a common motif on Jewish ossuaries of the period, or even more likely an amphora or krater (depending on how much importance is placed on which end is up: for a good example of a reconstruction, and useful commentary on the whole fiasco, see Mark Goodacre on James Charlesworth on Talpiot Tomb B). That this is more obvious is that as a fish the drawing is bizarre (little tiny absurdly itty bitty fins; scales that look coincidentally more like architectural decoration), but as a nephesh or amphora much less so; even the so-called “man” would have to be a freak (as it is, depicting Jonah with a three foot dick; a head swollen to the size of a medicine ball; and ambiguous arms). This is very unlikely to be a depiction of Jonah in the Whale.

For, again, a gallery of heavy-hitting experts all weighing in on the “give me a break” column, see Thomas Verenna’s roundup post, which includes links (here). The most important are Robert Cargill and Eric Myers and the most educational for laymen (albeit much longer) is by Christ Rollston, which also gets you up to speed on the backstory. Needless to say, this bogus “find” is linked to a heavily-marketed book, The Jesus Discovery: The New Archaeological Find That Reveals the Birth of Christianity, by James D. Tabor. But given that he has been so thoroughly disgraced by expert analysis on this (and yet gives the book an absurdly confident title like that), I can only assume he has tenure, as otherwise he would cease to be employed by now. This is really beyond the pale.

It’s even more discrediting that Tabor still stands by the “Jesus Tomb Wingnut Team” interpretation of an inscription in the other Talpiot tomb as “Mariamene” (as supposedly a variant of Mariamne, supposedly a distinctive spelling of Mary Magdalene), when it is unmistakably Mariamê kai Mara, “Miriam and Mara,” one very common Jewish name, the other unconnected to Jesus. An earlier epigrapher confused a single letter as nu (N) which is actually kappa [K], the one being an upside down version of the other (a common mistake even for an expert to make who might be getting tired trudging through hundreds of inscriptions). This is so glaringly obvious there can be no reasonable dispute in the matter. Yet he keeps on claiming it says Mariamene. Lately he has been willing to allow that it “might” say Mariame kai Mara…after I pointed this out. But why didn’t he notice it before? The many statistical analyses run for the names in the tomb are also horribly fallacious (the conjunction of names there given the actual population in the tomb is simply not improbable enough to ensure this tomb has any connection with Jesus), but he can’t be expected to understand that (he’s not a mathematician and hasn’t studied statistics or statistical logic). But surely he can read Greek properly. He seems more inclined to stick to the guns of a bizarre theory than actually admit it’s too bizarre to be credible. That was not the “lost tomb of Jesus” ; and neither is this “new” find connected to Christianity.

The lesson to learn here is never to trust the media, much less the rumor mill, when claims of an amazing new find like this crop up. Wait for the evidence to actually be presented, for many independent experts to actually analyze it. Then see what survives. Usually, nothing.

Atheism IS an Identity

Sam Harris once wrote that “atheism” is “a term that should not even exist,” because “no one ever needs to identify himself as a ‘non-astrologer’ or a ‘non-alchemist’. We do not have words for people who doubt that Elvis is still alive or that aliens have traversed the galaxy only to molest ranchers and their cattle.” In context, he didn’t seem to be attacking atheism as an identity movement, just noting that in a world in which nearly everyone accepted reality, we wouldn’t have a word for atheism (this is from A Letter to a Christian Nation). But in Julian Baggini’s new piece for The Financial Times, on “Atheism in America,” he interviewed Harris, who seems to be backing the vocal few in society who have denounced the atheist identity movement in America.

It’s no secret that I believe the atheism identity movement (represented by such projects as the Out Campaign) is a powerful and important moment in American history. But quoting Baggini:

Not everyone agrees that this is the way to go. The neuroscientist Sam Harris is one of America’s best-known atheists; his 2004 book, The End of Faith, sold over half a million copies. He agrees that the situation for atheists is “analogous to being gay and in the closet for many people”, and it is striking that virtually every atheist I spoke to talked the language of being “out” or “in the closet”. Nevertheless, Harris argues “it’s a losing game to trumpet the cause of atheism and try to rally around this variable politically. I’ve supported that in the past, I support those organisations, I understand why they do that. But, in the end, the victim group identity around atheism is the wrong strategy. It’s like calling yourself a non-astrologer. We simply don’t need the term.”

Harris is wildly wrong here. If 80% of the country were fanatical astrologers and political and social policy were being driven by or threatened by that, if non-astrologers were treated the way Baggini documents atheists are treated in many states in this country (particularly the rural midwest), if they acted the way people who attacked Jessica Ahlquist did (plus a zillion other things documented in Greta Christina’s new book, which I got an advance look at, and it’s awesome BTW; but I’ll blog all about that when it’s out), in a world like that, “non astrologer” would become a meaningful, powerful, and important word. It would be a central and crucial focal point distinguishing people who want a world full of astrologers and people who don’t. It informs anyone who hears it where you stand on the whole “faith-based epistemology” thing. It says you aren’t going to be cowed into denying who you are, into living in the closet, pretending to be an astrologer. It says you are one of those unusually sane people who realizes astrology is bullshit. In a world full of astrologers, that’s just about the most important information I could ever learn about you (not quite, but nearly).

A Christian apologist (I can’t recall who) once quipped in a debate that if his godless opponent were walking down a dark street late at night and heard a bunch of people running up behind him, wouldn’t he prefer to know they were a bunch of young men leaving a bible study class? Well, no. If a bunch of bible study nuts were running up behind me in the dark of night, as a very out atheist I would be a little worried, and certainly more on my guard than if it were, say, a bunch of random joggers. But if they were a bunch of young folk leaving an atheist meetup? I’d feel not only perfectly safe, but quite happy. It thus would mean something to me that they were wearing “Atheist Pride” T-Shirts, that they were leaving a coffee shop with an “Atheist Meetup!” sign propped up outside. The word communicates something to me that is incredibly meaningful in the social context we now find ourselves in.

This doesn’t mean I assume all atheists are nice and trustworthy guys and gals. But statistically, a group of them is not going to be up much mischief. To the contrary, they’re more likely to be picking up trash as they go, and chatting about tax policy or Dr. Who. My point is that atheism as an identity means something: it’s how we find each other (as opposed to the state of things before, when theists arranged society by various assumptions and pressures so as to isolate us, making it near impossible for atheists to know they weren’t alone, much less get together and organize). That’s just about the most important thing that can happen for freethought: Atheists finding each other. Atheists organizing. Atheists sharing notes. Atheists identifying with a movement to which they belong…not because of their gender or politics or interest in knitting, but because they don’t buy into this “astrology” thing (to keep with Harris’ analogy). They are like us, because they, like us, have admitted the emperor has no clothes. And in a world run largely by people convinced the emperor is fabulously dressed, and who socially punish everyone who disagrees with them, saying out loud that we side with the no-clothers is pretty damned important.

I won’t dwell on alternative monikers. Other words don’t work. Christians claim to be skeptics. They claim to be freethinkers. They claim to be humanists. But you will never find a Christian claiming to be an atheist. It’s therefore an ideal label: that you are willing to identify as an atheist means something very distinct from, say, only being willing to identify as a “secular humanist.” Old folks do the latter. The young, the future of this country, do the former. It proves you don’t buy into the stigma anymore, that in fact the stigmatization of the word “atheist” is precisely what’s wrong with this country, and therefore stealing that identity back and making it our own is precisely the only way we will have our victory and be accepted for who we are: people who don’t see the emperor’s clothes. Whereas, the problem with “agnostic,” for example, is that an agnostic is an “atheist,” so to prefer “agnostic” as a label tends to have a psychological, not a rational motive behind it (see my past blog Atheist or Agnostic?). In fact, it communicates that you are still cowed by the stigma. You are not free. Or you are not proud of who you really are. Or you are afraid of what it means to be who you are.

To identify as an atheist is brash, it’s self-affirming, it’s the identity of choice for the young, the new generation, the people who are going to change everything (because they are literally going to inherit the earth from us). It’s a direct challenge to the status quo. And being willing to openly join a movement posing that challenge means something. For example, a meeting billed as “skeptics” this or that usually means they want to be inclusive and non-offensive; but I don’t want to have to censor myself; I want to be with people willing to call themselves atheists, with whom I can be completely who I am. I can only have that at meetings billed as “atheists” this or that. And that’s a real, tangible difference, one I experience year in and year out. It thus clearly does matter.

Many studies had once been done that religion was good for your health and happiness. But due to a variety of methodological flaws (such as conflating all “nones” as a single category rather than distinguishing apatheists from philosophically committed or even organized atheists: see my comments on Atheism and Depression) these studies were subsequently refuted by another round of studies that identified church attendance as the thing that was good for your health and happiness. But those studies were flawed by not asking the more fundamental question: what is it about church that would have such an effect? And so the latest studies have found that church and religion actually have nothing to do with it: in fact, anyone who identifies with a movement and who regularly socializes (e.g. bowling clubs, atheist meetups) gains exactly the same benefit. See Chaeyoon Lim and Robert Putnam, “Religion, Social Networks, and Life Satisfaction,” American Sociological Review 75.6 (2010): 914–33. Lim and Putnam concluded that “religious belonging, rather than religious meaning, is central to the religion–life satisfaction nexus.” Thus we don’t have to believe in god, we just have to belong to a community sharing a common identity and worldview.

When I see the science showing group identity and socialization as keys to health and happiness, the latter I knew, but it’s the first of those that catches my eye: human happiness depends on a feeling of belonging, of social identity, of not being the “only” one who doesn’t see the emperor’s clothes. Thus our happiness depends on creating an atheist movement all atheists can identify with and draw comfort and meaning from. In fact, studies suggest you don’t even have to go to atheist meetings to benefit from having an atheist movement to identify with: just having a community you strongly identify with alone conferred psychological and health benefits; getting out and socializing on a regular basis, only more so. And where else will you be completely comfortable socializing? Atheist groups. How will there always be an atheist group near you that you can regularly socialize with? Only if there is a broad, strong, and growing national atheist movement.

Sure, maybe in a hundred years all our atheist clubs will segue into philosophy clubs and Harris’ dream of no longer needing the word will come to pass. But we’re nowhere near there yet. For now, what separates us from the deluded and irrational masses is our common realization that the emperor does indeed have no clothes; and our sanity depends on socializing with others who see that, too. And not only that. Even just the existence of the movement contributes to human happiness, as that fact alone consoles and uplifts atheists who can’t socialize with other atheists (for whatever reason). It even adds to the happiness of those who already do socialize with other atheists. It really is a rising tide that lifts all boats.

So we should rally around this identity, use it to find each other, and to create a distinct community, and thereby create an identity and a sense of belonging. It’s not a victim thing (as Harris mistakenly presumes), but a power thing, a freedom thing, a belonging thing. Once we rally around this as an identity to build a movement around, we just need to make it as inclusive as makes sense, so everyone can be “completely who they are” at atheist meetings. We have people working at making atheism more inclusive of women and LGBT, for example (Greta Christina, Natalie Reed, etc.), and black Americans (Black SkepticsThe Crommunist, etc.), and others. Yes, we do need some core moral values, and we haven’t settled on any agreed set yet (honesty, reasonableness, and compassion are obvious, but the devil is in the details; just how much and what kind of honesty, reasonableness, and compassion is the “minimum entry requirement” to belong and do well), but that’s another thing we are working on. In the meantime, atheism as an identity is creating a movement, it’s creating networks, organization, knowledge. It’s creating, in other words, power. Something atheists never had. And will never have by any other means. That’s what the New Atheism is really all about: taking back who we are, becoming something as a movement.

Our comfort and sanity also depend on our not being disenfranchised, on having a recognized voice in the political discourse deciding our fates by deciding how our country gets run and what we do with its public resources. And that means we need to show our numbers, and the strength of our commitment and motivation, as well as show we have a political voice, a public presence and a lot of votes. Thus it is that the Reason Rally next month is crucial, not just for sending a message to Washington, but to America, that we aren’t a fringe minority but a fast-growing minority with as much legitimacy as Jews or Mormons or LGBT. To show them that, we need physical numbers.

So if you can go, you should go (there is a network of charter buses in place to help you do that), not just to enjoy all the speakers and entertainments and fellow like-minded non-astrologers, but to represent us all, those of us who can’t make it (because, like me, they can’t afford it; or like my wife, they can’t get time off from work), and to up our physical presence as an identity in this country, to show the nation that we are not insignificant and we do talk to each other and we organize. And if you can’t go, you should donate, to help them recover the costs of putting this on and making this statement to the government and the nation, because this is doing you a big favor, and so it is worth your while to back it (not least so that future efforts will know the support is there). You can also buy their swag, if you are more into the free market thing.

Yes, this is one of those “inclusive” things, but not in a “shush the atheist” way. Atheists will be as welcome, and can be as out as anyone there, and feel completely themselves, represented and supported.

So go! Or support it some other way. PZ posted a video that he says will persuade you: Time to Stand Up.

Tai Solarin: Atheist of Africa

Today is the Day of Solidarity for Black Atheists, launched by African Americans for Humanism and announced by our own Black Skeptics Los Angeles. And amen to that. So I’m putting up something I’ve done (albeit long ago) that’s of interest on this subject, especially since it’s something most people never hear about and never look into, even my most avid fans: my article on the late but famous atheist intellectual and activist, the Nigerian of Nigerians, Tai Solarin (1922-1994).

So famous an atheist he was that you could send a letter addressed to “Tai Solarin, Ikenne, Nigeria,” and the letters would always get to him. He had famous debates with Chinua Achebe in Nigerian newspapers, started a godless school for children (the Mayflower School, whose motto is “Knowledge Is Light,” which is still in operation), and much else besides. He was a social critic, a patriot, and an avid and outspoken defender of nonbelief. He later had a Nigerian university named after him (the Tai Solarin University of Education, which specialized in educating educators, but is now slated for closure, sadly).

Back in college, my sophomore year, I wrote a class paper on him. It’s a pretty basic, sophomore-level paper. But I spent a whole day in the UCLA library reading Nigerian newspapers and whatever else I could find, and I’m told it remains to this day one of the most detailed summaries of his life and work available online. So if you want to celebrate Solidarity with a Black Atheist day, educate yourself about this guy. Because he deserves to be remembered. Check out Tai Solarin: His Life, Ideas, and Accomplishments.

And take note: atheist movements are arising all across Africa now, from Ghana to Uganda (and beyond), and this isn’t the kind of place where it’s exactly “safe” to be an out atheist, much less known as publicly promoting atheism. So African atheists are pretty damn courageous, needless to say. I’ll solidarity that!

Debates & Interviews

In January (as announced beforehand) I debated the question “Jesus: Man, Myth, or Messiah?” with Douglas Jacoby at Amador Christian Center in the beautiful Sacramento hills. And now the audio of that debate is available (video might come later; if so, I’ll emend this blog and mention it in the comments thread). Ben Schuldt produced a good wrap-up post on it, briefly reviewing the debate and then surveying all the things he would have wanted the audience to hear (he’s well aware that debates are on the clock and thus everything that needs to be said simply can’t be, but that’s what blogs are for, praise Jebus).

Video of my debate with J.P. Holding (also at Amador Christian Center, last year) on the topic of whether the “Text of the New Testament is Reliableis also now available. I had announced that long ago in a comment thread, but have been meaning to blog it up properly for a while, so I’m seizing the opportunity. Not only is the video available (via YouTube) but you can also download our slideshows and view them separately (Carrier’s | Holding’s).

I was also interviewed for the Oklahoma Atheists podcast (yes, people, there are atheists in Oklahoma, it’s not just all rusted cars and missile silos), which is now available. In it we discussed my use of Bayesian Reasoning in Philosophy, especially in The End of Christianity where I apply it to the design argument.

Finally, I was actually on live public radio in Las Vegas a while back, appearing as a phone-in guest (along with a few others) on Conversations with Cogree. One reason I hate doing call-in shows is that phoneline audio quality is usually terrible, and with multiple people and signal delays and no body language to observe, talking over each other is a constant problem. But Cogee does a decent job moderating it all. The theme was “Atheism vs. Faith” and there were multiple believers and multiple atheists, each coming from a very different viewpoint than the other. Everyone was treated fairly. You can listen to an archive of the show.

The Lame That Would Not Die!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That Luxor Thing

Parallelomania is the particular disease of Jesus myth advocates who see “parallels” everywhere between early Christianity and all manner of pagan religions. Many of those parallels are real; don’t get me wrong. Some are even causal (Christianity really is a syncretism of Judaism and paganism, which point I will soundly prove in my coming book On the Historicity of Jesus Christ). But most parallels are not real, or are not causally related (remember that basic rule in science: correlation is not causation). Some don’t even exist (and here bad scholarship becomes the disease: see my cautionary review of Kersey Graves’ Sixteen Crucified Saviors).

One important example of a “non-parallel” is the Egyptian nativity narrative at Luxor. I reviewed this claim years ago (Brunner’s Gottkoenigs & the Nativity of Jesus: A Brief Communication). Acharya S (aka D.M. Murdock) responded to that by claiming I was reading the wrong text (and also not reading it right), but she’s mistaken. She also claimed that the meaning of “immaculate conception” is up for debate; it is not. She simply cites other people making the same mistake she did, as if a mistake many people make ceases to be a mistake, which is a non sequitur. It would have been better if she had not doubled down on her error and just corrected herself. But that’s her own look out. What concerns me more is her poor treatment of the details of Egyptian history and the texts in the Luxor case.

I just pulled this blog topic out of my random collection of things to do when I found time, so here goes. On the matter of the translation, she’s just wrong. There is sex in the scene and plenty of lurid details, pillow talk, and everything I say, couched in the coy terms of ancient writers (this isn’t Vivid Video). Of course one should not obsess on whether Egyptian iconography depicts beds the way you see them at a Sears showroom, or whether pillow talk actually involves pillows. That’s just silly. It’s the words that describe what is going on. And the words say in effect just what I said they do. That I relate them into modern analogs is besides the point. Anyone who reads German and wants to check this for themselves, email me and I’ll send you scans of the key texts (although it should be enough to note that Brunner himself agrees with me in concluding that the narrative depicts sex, and he’s an actual Egyptologist and a leading expert on the Luxor inscriptions).

More important is that Acharya/Murdock says the bulk of my details come from the “D” text and not the one at Luxor. The D text she refers to is the narrative accompanying the panels at the Deir el-Bahri Temple Complex built by Queen Hatshepsut in the 15th century BC. When I originally posted this blog, I reported that the Luxor Temple was built at the same time by the same queen, but that is incorrect, the Luxor inscription was commissioned almost a century later by another pharaoh, and Murdock’s argument is that he stripped all the sex out of it and made it into a virginal conception. That does not follow, but I was wrong on the original point (on other points she raised, see That Luxor Thing Again). The visual panels at Deir el-Bahri are still in essentials identical to those at Luxor (with a few minor variances Murdock speculates from). But it still appears to me that the D text simply expands the abbreviated text at Luxor. To claim that the shorter text at Luxor doesn’t simply abbreviate the full narrative provided at Deir el-Bahri is perhaps not nonsense as I had thought, but it is speculation. I do not see sufficient evidence that the two stories are intended to be completely different.

As Brunner himself concluded, the myth being depicted at both temples is the exact same myth understood the exact same way. Thus the full narrative at Deir el-Bahri does indeed describe what is going on in the Luxor scenes. I doubt Acharya/Murdock can find any living Egyptologist who would say otherwise, or indeed endorse any of her convoluted efforts to reinterpret the text to say the opposite of what it says and what the accompanying images show. The Luxor text even borrows verbatim phrases from the Deir el-Bahri text, e.g. the god “did everything he wanted with her,” which if you wonder what that means, the expanded text at Deir el-Bahri tells you, in some sexy detail. Likewise, even the Luxor text says (for panel 4; Brunner, p. 45):

“She awoke because of the god smell and laughed at its majesty. He went to her immediately, he was inflamed in love for her. He let her see his god-shape, after he had come before her, so that she rejoiced at the sight of his perfection, and his love went into her body. The palace was then flooded with god smell, and everything smelled like the land of Punt.” … “The queen said to him, ‘My, how large your power is! … Your smell is gorgeous in every way!’ Then the majesty of this God did everything it wanted with her.”

The expanded text at Deir el-Bahri elaborates on what these coy phrases mean, very clearly explaining that giant god penises are going into the female places they were intended to and the queen enjoys the hell out of it and is especially impressed by how big his member is (ah, I can see the Onion’s headlines now, “Queen Hatshepsut: First Woman Eroticist Carves Her Sexual Preferences in Stone; Rules Empire”). That, plus the other details, rule out any meaningful parallels between Luxor cult and Christianity. The only parallels that remain are paralleled in all Ancient Near Eastern religions of the time and Roman and Hellenistic religions afterward, and thus are not uniquely Egyptian at all.

This is a common mistake too many make. They get stuck on one way of seeing the evidence that fits their preconceptions, then they go “Aha!” and claim causal influence (Why, surely the Christians just borrowed the nativity scene of Horus from Luxor!). But when their interpretation of the evidence is shown to be wholly wrong, they don’t abandon the idea but double down and refuse to let go of what they felt was so attractive that it “must” be true. But more importantly, they don’t try to figure out what the causal channel was or to find evidence of causal relation (because correlation is not enough, even when there is correlation). If they did, they would find that there is often no direct connection at all with what they were obsessing over originally; or that we must be agnostic about it, and not tout it as established.

The nativity stories in Matthew and Luke look like a combination of Jewish nativity apocrypha (e.g., extant and lost Moses haggadot in Matthew; and Isaac haggadot in Luke) and Hellenistic king nativities and their influence on Roman imperial nativities (e.g., tales told of the births of Alexander the Great, the Ptolemies and Seleucids, the Roman Emperors), structured in specific ways unique to Christian needs. For example, there are magi in Matthew’s story because Matthew is deliberately reversing the Daniel narrative of the Jewish exile among the Magi (Daniel being the only book in the Bible that mentions magi). In fact, Matthew doesn’t just ape Daniel at the beginning, he also apes him at the end, turning the empty tomb story into an update of Daniel in the Lion’s Den (as I show in The Empty Tomb, pp. 360-64, and Proving History, pp. 199-204). Thus, Matthew is not copying Egyptian religion, much less the story at Luxor, where there are in fact no magi … which is not an irrelevant point, since we have to explain why magi are in Matthew’s story, and “he copied Luxor” simply doesn’t explain that, whereas “he is constructing a midrashic haggadah on Daniel” does (magi being specifically Persian priests, not Egyptian).

In the Daniel narrative, kings are troubled by omens and summon their wise men to explain them, including the magi and a foreigner, a Jew named Daniel (whom Christians regarded as among their principal prophets, having predicted the messiah would die to atone for the sins of Israel in Dan. 9:24-26; see my discussion of the Dying Messiah). In Matthew, a king is again troubled by an omen and summons his wise men to explain it, including the magi, who this time are the foreigners, and (in reversal of type) are the ones who get the omen right, and have come, in obedience to the decree of their ancestral king (Darius the Great, or so we’re to believe), to worship the one true God, as all nations ought, thus fulfilling Daniel’s message in Dan. 6:25-28, thus confirming Jesus is the Son of God, the very same God who rescued Daniel from the lions (and who will thus rescue Jesus).

Other elements of the story are just commonplaces in divine king nativities (even in real life, not just stories), and thus do not connect directly to Egyptian mythology at all. By analogy, the elements of the nativity of Moses that Matthew borrowed also match elements of the Akkadian Sargon narratives, but Matthew is not borrowing from the Akkadian myths (he probably had never even heard of them), he is borrowing from the Jewish myths. That those myths just happen to be adaptations of earlier Akkadian myths is something we now know, but is not likely anything the early Christians knew. Likewise, possibly Egyptian god-king nativities influenced Hellenistic god-king nativity stories (or possibly they were both separately influenced by earlier Babylonian and Sumerian god-king nativities, or by actual royal ceremonies common to all kingdoms of the time), but it was the Hellenistic stories and practices that most likely influenced Matthew and Luke, not the earlier Egyptian material. They probably never heard the story told at Luxor, and would have been repulsed by it if they had. (See Not the Impossible Faith, pp. 76-78.)

More importantly than all this is the fact that the nativity stories of Jesus are later add ons.  They were not part of the origin of the religion. Thus you cannot explain the origins of Christianity by saying they just revamped a godking narrative about Horus-Osiris (which was really a narrative applied to the Pharaohs). The godking narratives of the Gospels were never a part of Christianity until the Gospels were formed many decades later. There may have been an original nativity story, but we don’t know what it said, so we can’t make claims about what its influences were (although see Not the Impossible Faith, pp. 247-57). The earliest version we have is Matthew’s, and we can see he invented it to suit his own literary aims; Luke’s version is (in my opinion) a deliberate rewrite of Matthew (what we call a redaction); in fact Luke is really trying to argue against Matthew, by changing every key element of his narrative (which reflects how these kinds of religious narratives get written: they are propaganda built to the occasion; although I did not make this argument there, I did list some of the evidence from which one can construct that argument in my work on the Date of Christ’s Birth; as for Luke being a rewrite of Matthew, and not writing independently of him, see The Case Against Q). Egyptian religion is wholly irrelevant to all of this.

The fact is, we can fully explain every element of the Gospel nativities by appealing to (1) their Jewish background (thus Christians, “pesher style,” constructed a narrative out of various Old Testament passages, such as reinterpreting a prophecy in Isaiah as being about a virgin born messiah; although most Jews disagreed with them, we know fringe groups of Jews treated scripture the same bizarre way Christians often did, so their doing such a thing in this case is not contextually implausible, even if it was linguistically specious: see The Problem with the Virgin Birth Prophecy); (2) their Hellenistic background (conceptions of sons of gods being announced by omens and prophecies, and achieved by spiritual rather than sexual means, were all common ideas in Greco-Roman religion, and virgin born gods were a known fad at the time; and all this could be made to agree with popular Jewish theology regarding the capabilities of the Holy Spirit); and (3) their immediate inter-community context (the Gentile Luke arguing against the Judaizer Matthew arguing against the adoptionist Mark). That leaves nothing for Luxor to explain, nor any evidence of any knowledge of the specific narrative we now find there.

Let’s Read Natalie Reed

Natalie Reed is a new member of the FtB team and she blogs about transgender and transsexual issues, and other things in her wheelhouse (like, say, Dr. Who). I try to read my fellow bloggers when I get a chance (most often at best I can only skim, and often I can’t even keep up at that, but I try), and I must say Natalie Reed is one of my favorites here. She’s smart, well-informed, writes very well, and has already taught me a great deal (check out her blog, Sincerely, Natalie Reed, and all its archives here, already full of gems). So I’m shocked to see John Loftus has gone off the handle and is treating her very strangely, ignoring everything she actually says and attacking her for things she didn’t say, and then getting petty and childish in the process, basically accusing her of being an unqualified “diversity hire.”

Which is strange. That’s like accusing someone of being hired to represent Mexico of being a “diversity hire” because they were hired to represent Mexico. Huh? And wouldn’t actually being Mexican qualify you to represent Mexicans? I mean, that’s nearly the top qualification there. Reed is a transsexual woman. She is also superbly informed on that issue, has a tremendous body of experience many atheists don’t (with issues such as drug addiction), and is a very good writer (In fact, IMO, the best in this subject). She is thus very qualified, and very much wanted and welcome here; indeed, needed here, as the transsexual and transgender community almost never has any distinct voice or representatives in atheist congregations and events. So, WTF, John?

Our own Daniel Finke has already done a superb job of explaining the situation and why Loftus is way off the rails here, and I could not top him if I tried, so I well recommend you read his post on this: On the Qualifications of our Alleged “Diversity Hire”, Natalie Reed. I’ll only add a repeat here of my comment there:

I fully agree with your assessment here, Daniel.

Natalie Reed is an excellent writer. Her blogs are often thorough, thoughtful, informed, and well-researched, are a delight to read, and do not waste words (some people complain they are sometimes long, but that’s not padding or verbosity, it’s precision and completeness). She’s impressed me. And already taught me a great deal. She also does fill a vacant niche (and that is why we got her): a representative speaking for and to atheists about transsexual and gender issues. It’s not like John Loftus was doing that (or that he would be qualified to even if he did). And frankly, I can’t think of anyone better for the job than Natalie. And isn’t the best one at it precisely who we should have here?

As for Loftus himself, he has not been comporting himself well in this case. Lately he has given ample grounds for you to conclude as you do; he’s been far more off the handle than I’ve ever seen him. I do hope he recognizes and addresses this perception and behavior problem.

Whatever you think of John Loftus (his behavior in the comments thread to Natalie’s well-thought post Target Audiences and Playing Nice is appalling, and I’m ashamed to see that), I think you should all check out Natalie’s blog from time to time. Truly. We could all benefit from reading Natalie Reed.