Finding God in the Waves (Part 2: Reconstruction)

This post is a continuation of my reflections on Mike McHargue’s recent book “Finding God in the Waves” (see Part 1). With Part 2 I am engaging with the second half of the book – titled ‘God in Science’ – which presents the ideas upon which Mike has reconstructed his faith (which he would assure you is an ongoing process without a known end point). Unlike Part 1, my aim here is not to explore points of contact with my own story but rather to offer my honest assessment of the ideas and data that are presented.

God in Science

The second half of the book starts with a chapter bearing the tongue in cheek heading of “Happily Ever After”, and we soon see that Mike’s religious experience didn’t undo the skepticism that was cultivated in the preceding years. It’s a laudable demonstration of his integrity that, despite such a powerful experience, he did not dismiss all of the data that had influenced and sustained his period of unbelief but rather sought to integrate it with this new data point.

So what might you expect to find in a book section titled ‘God in Science’? If you’re hoping for a recapitulation of the modern refrain of evidential apologetics surrounding cosmology, DNA, etc.., then Science Mike is going to disappoint. He instead embraces the mystery and finds God hidden in plain sight. The following is my attempt to briefly summarize the data that is presented to lay the groundwork for the foundational axioms that he develops throughout this section:

  1. The cosmological data doesn’t favor any one particular type of “cause” for the big bang, but science does reveal a universe that originates in a mysterious singularity which became a framework of forces and energy that sustain the observable universe with an unfailing regularity.
  2. The brain is adept at creating a model of God and when that model is abstract and assigns God a loving and peaceful nature, the time spent attending to that model will encourage focus, compassion, empathy and result in lower stress and blood pressure.
  3. There is no good evidence for the effect of intercessory prayer except as a therapeutic effect for the person doing the praying. Contemplative prayer can also yield effects similar to those established for meditative practices, which generally improves focus, willpower and compassion and results in lower stress and blood pressure.
  4. It is historically probable that Jesus of Nazareth was an actual figure who was crucified in response to his claims and following, and whose influence inspired a persistent God-centered movement that became the largest such movement in history.
  5. Therapy can be effective because the impression left on the brain by past events can be altered when those memories are revisited, and revisiting the past in a safe environment will reduce the negative emotional impressions associated with those events.
  6. Humans are an innately social species and are most psychologically healthy when immersed in a cooperative and loving social context. This immersion will also reinforce and motivate dedication to the beliefs associated with that social context.
  7. The Bible is a collection of texts that were written, assembled and copied by human hands and these texts reflect the beliefs and cultural contexts of their authors.

I think these summaries do a pretty good job of fairly outlining the modest claims that Mike puts forth, and I don’t see anything obviously wrong or misleading in them. This data is the basis for a set of axioms that then serve as the foundation for his reconstructed faith. No discussion of Finding God in the Waves would be complete without a review of those axioms, but I should first note that the axioms are all structured as propositions of the form “X is AT LEAST … EVEN IF this is all X is, …”. The intention is to define X in a minimal sense, based only on the empirically grounded data above, and that this minimal definition is sufficient to arrive at a reasonable justification for integrating X into one’s beliefs and practices.

Axiom #1 – Faith

Faith is AT LEAST a way to contextualize the human need for spirituality and find meaning in the face of mortality. EVEN IF this is all faith is, spiritual practice can be beneficial to cognition, emotional states, and culture.

The subjectivity surrounding the words “spirituality” and “meaning” make this hard to analyze. But maybe that’s part of the point – that faith is a subjectively grounded perspective, in which case I accept that this could be a viable definition if “need for” is replaced with “tendency toward”. We’re still left with a lot of ambiguity and the observation that the outworking of this tendency yields so many divergent beliefs and behaviors that it’s not obvious how to untangle the association to any benefits. Having recently read Newberg’s “How God Changes Your Brain” (one of Mike’s favorite sources) I perceived that faith was used as a synonym for a general sense of hope and optimism. This axiom might have been more concrete if it aligned better with Newberg’s definition.

Axiom #2 – God

God is AT LEAST the natural forces that created and sustain the Universe as experienced via a psychosocial model in human brains that naturally emerges from innate biases. EVEN IF that is a comprehensive definition for God, the pursuit of this personal, subjective experience can provide meaning, peace, and empathy for others.

There’s certainly precedent for this conception of God and though there is no way to objectively arbitrate between definitions of the divine, this clearly does not satisfy the profile for even basic theism, which is the benchmark for most definitions of God. But Mike is again presumably OK with this since he prefers the non-theist label as an alternative to the typical theist/atheist dichotomy.

Axiom #3 – Prayer

Prayer is AT LEAST a form of meditation that encourages the development of healthy brain tissue, lowers stress, and can connect us to God. EVEN IF that is a comprehensive definition of prayer, the health and psychological benefits of prayer justify the discipline.

Given the definition of ‘God’ above, it isn’t clear what is meant by saying that prayer “can connect us to God”. My best guess is that prayer can serve to reinforce the sense that the psychosocial model of God reflects reality. No argument there. I would contest, however, whether this definition of prayer is adequate to support the ‘EVEN IF’ conclusion, which assumes a particular form of prayer that isn’t clearly constrained in the definition and thus infers that anything one labels as prayer could fit into the claim. To clarify in Venn diagram form:

Incorporating these observations, I suggest that a more accurate axiom might be that “Prayer is AT LEAST an attempt to connect with God that, in a certain forms, can encourage healthy neurological development and lower stress. EVEN IF that is a comprehensive definition of prayer, the health and psychological benefits justify these forms of prayer as a religious discipline”.

Axiom #4 – Sin

Sin is AT LEAST volitional action or inaction that violates one’s own understanding of what is moral. Sin comes from the divergent impulses between our lower and higher brain functions and our evolution-driven tendency to do things that serve ourselves and our tribe. EVEN IF this is all sin is, it is destructive and threatens human flourishing.

It appears to me that this axiom is assuming that one’s own understanding of what is moral is neither destructive nor threatening to human flourishing. I don’t think there’s any doubt that people can cognitively accept moral perspectives that are destructive or threatening to human flourishing. So though I find the given definition to be a reasonable projection of the concept of sin onto a scientifically grounded view of human moral agency, the unstated assumptions underlying the conclusion are not certain, even if they often hold true. See the Moral Ontology post for a more thorough unpacking of my take on the nature of morality.

Axiom #5 – The Afterlife

The afterlife is AT LEAST the persistence of our physical matter in the ongoing life cycle on Earth, the memes we pass on to others with our lives, and the model of our unique neurological signature in the brains of those who knew us. EVEN IF this is all the afterlife is, the consequences of our actions persist beyond our death and our ethical considerations must consider a timeline beyond our death.

Agreed.

Axiom #6 – Salvation

Salvation is AT LEAST the means by which humanity overcomes sin to produce human flourishing. EVEN IF this is all salvation is, spiritual and religious actions and beliefs that promote salvation are good for humankind.

The issue I raised for the definition of sin – namely that a person’s notion of what it means to overcome sin is not guaranteed to produce human flourishing – spills over into this definition. That is, the pursuit of salvation is not guaranteed to produce goods for humankind. Even so, I agree that the underlying principle of practicing careful moral reflection to deliberately guide our actions is worth encouraging and generally yields outcomes which prove themselves to be preferable in the long run.

Axiom #7 – Jesus

Jesus is AT LEAST a man so connected to God that he was called the Son of God and the largest religious movement in human history is centered around his teachings. EVEN IF this is all Jesus is, following his teachings can promote peace, empathy, and genuine morality.

I want to start by first offering a proposed revision to this axiom: “Jesus is AT LEAST a man so connected to associated with God that he was called the Son of God and the largest religious movement in human history is centered around his teachings persona. EVEN IF this is all Jesus is, following his the socially relevant teachings attributed to him can promote peace, empathy, and genuine morality.

That first change is just an attempt to clarify. I don’t know if Mike intended to identify a conceptual connection or a spiritual connection, but we can’t know anything about the latter, so I assume the former. Regardless, I also see that Christianity as a whole is more centered on the identity and nature of Jesus than on the words attributed to him. With regard to those teachings, I agree that there are many facets which can promote peace, empathy and moral behavior, but that does not apply to the entirety of the red letters. It is ultimately the persona of Jesus that we embrace which dictates the personal impact of those teachings as a whole.

Axiom #8 – The Holy Spirit

The Holy Spirit is AT LEAST the psychological and neurological components of God that allow God to be experienced as a personal force or agent. EVEN IF this is all the Holy Spirit is, God is more relatable and neurologically actionable when experienced this way.

Fair enough.

Axiom #9 – Church

The Church is AT LEAST the global community of people who choose to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ. EVEN IF this is all the church is, the Church is still the largest body of spiritual scholarship, community, and faith practice in the world – and this practice can improve people’s lives in real, measurable ways.

Much of what I said for Axiom #7 also applies to the definition here, with regard to the church’s relation to Jesus. I would also suggest that this axiom implies far more cohesion than actually exists, though I recognize that there is a core set of beliefs and practices in the Christian tradition which are embraced by the vast majority of the communities who claim the label. Nonetheless, this diversity also means that there are plenty of options to choose from and thus a good chance that you can find a community in which you are comfortable. This is one area where the secular world is lacking. I would not be at all surprised if, in practice, this particular aspect of the Christian tradition outweighs all others with respect to encouraging and retaining affiliation.

Axiom #10 – The Bible

The Bible is AT LEAST a collection of books and writings assembled by the Church that chronicle a people group’s experiences with, and understanding of, God over thousands of years. EVEN IF that is a comprehensive definition of the Bible, study of scripture is warranted to understand our culture and the way in which people come to know God.

This definition is OK, though I think it somewhat overstates the period of authorship and centrality of God (especially as previously defined) in the biblical corpus. More significantly, I’m having trouble reconciling the conclusion. I can see that the study of scripture would be warranted for the purpose of understanding the authors’ cultures and the way in which they perceived God, but it isn’t clear to me how well this translates to a more generalized human culture and perception of God. I would think you would need to study a wide variety of religious texts and traditions to get a handle on that. Nor is it obvious why that should be considered a worthwhile pursuit.

In the end, I don’t have overwhelming objections to these axioms and can appreciate how they would serve the role for which they are intended – to provide a reasonable grounding for justifying the adoption of some form of Christianity. But I am also left feeling like several of them are playing semantic games that manipulate our sense of religious identity by establishing associations to Christian terminology for concepts which are not clearly rooted in that tradition. Mike might even agree with that assessment. He is a self-professed expert manipulator, after all.

Any Way You Want It

I am intrigued by Mike’s experience and appreciate his perspective and approach to faith, but this book doesn’t have the gravity to nudge my trajectory. As I see it, the primary obstacle lies in the way that the reasoning presented in the second half of the book struck me as a recipe for improving your life by creating God, rather than by finding God, as suggested by the title. The realization that the god I believed in could very well be my own creation, built upon the creations of generations of humans before me and evolving right along with my shifting beliefs, was a primary influence in my deconversion. Despite recognizing the possibility of a pragmatically grounded faith, it is difficult for me to countenance how that same creative process might restore me to some sort of religious faith. Interestingly, it’s possible that Mike wouldn’t deny that this is exactly what he’s doing. The first question at the Portland stop of his Q&A tour asked whether God would continue to exist if every sentient creature ceased to exist and he said “what I identify as God would no longer exist”, but immediately followed that up with a caveat about how the mystical and irrational side of the equation leads him to hope for a different answer.

That’s a Wrap

Science Mike will remain in my podcast rotation and has inspired me to spend more time exploring the “Pragmatic Christianity” investigation that I proposed a few years back. Even though I am not compelled to embrace the scaffolding upon which Mike has built his current worldview I respect the way that he engages with the evidence and I appreciate the environment he is working to cultivate. I think that most of us would prefer a world full of people who interact with the same kind of compassion, open-mindedness and respect that this community seeks. Here’s to hoping that the future of American Christianity looks more and more like the communities we find in the wake of the waves that are being made by Science Mike and his cohorts.

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Finding God in the Waves (Part 1: The Backstory)

Science Who?

Somehow, despite expecting that I was keeping current with the zeitgeist at the confluence of belief and skepticism, it turns out that I was oblivious to a relatively prominent movement in progressive Christianity over the last few years in America. The Liturgists podcast, which started in July 2014, currently reports over a quarter million subscribers. The podcast was birthed out of the faith crises of Mike McHargue and Michael Gungor (who I recall seeing open for David Crowder about 10 years ago – when we were both unquestioningly abiding in the evangelical world of our youth). It deals openly and honestly with doubt as a central component of a healthy Christian faith and tests the limits of orthodoxy while embracing controversial figures like Rob Bell, Rachel Held Evans and Pete Enns. Participants in this community call themselves exvangelicals and talk about going through an ongoing process of deconstruction. Mike McHargue published the first episode of Ask Science Mike six months after the first Liturgists podcast and eventually garnered a large enough following that when his book was released in September 2016 he was able to schedule a whirlwind tour hosting live Q&A events across the country. That’s when I caught wind and started to tune in.

The Ask Science Mike podcast has been a regular member of my podcast rotation for several months now. It’s where I became familiar with Mike McHargue’s story and the not-so-orthodox brand of Christianity he endorses (if “endorse” if even the right word). His website labels him a “spiritual skeptic” but in his book he says he avoids self-labeling as much as he can. That’s probably a good choice because “empiricist, progressive, skeptical, non-theist, mystic Jesus follower” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. Labels aside, I have come to respect Science Mike as I have listened to him discuss his journey, his regard for a scientific epistemology and his concern with much of what we find in evangelicalism. So, despite its title, “Finding God in the Waves: How I lost my faith and found it again through science” isn’t your typical apologetics book. Scratch that – this isn’t an apologetics book at all. It’s a story of one man’s journey and his faith perspective at the time of writing, a perspective that he suggests is no more justified than the perspective of a contented unbeliever.

The book is divided into two distinct halves. This post focuses on Part I – titled ‘Lost and Found’ – which is an autobiographical recounting of Mike’s journey, from growing up in the Southern Baptist church (and as a social pariah at school), to a spiritual renewal into a more progressive form of Christianity, to an unwilling transition into a closet atheist, to making peace with his loss of faith and finally to the experience that led him to, well, whatever he is now. You may have noticed that I just glossed over a whole bunch of details that you can enjoy if you read the book for yourself. My goal here isn’t to retell Mike’s story but rather to highlight the points of contact (and dissimilarities) with my own journey to see if I can provide some context for my response to the second half of the book, where he delves into the foundations of his current faith.

The Journey Begins

Many aspects of Mike’s story have no analog in my life, but there are still elements to which I could relate. We share a “1960’s sitcom” (his words) upbringing in a stable, loving family with a commitment to a biblical Christianity. Mine came complete with family devotions based on James Dobson’s ‘Focus on the Family’ materials and church engagement that extended well beyond Sunday morning. But that’s about the extent of the similarities. I was never bullied, never went through an apathetic rock-band stage, and haven’t experienced any earth-shattering family crises. My backstory is about as boring and untraumatic as it gets.

Fast-forward twenty or so years and I did find some familiarity in his description of the period where he began to honestly question, for the first time, the faith tradition that he had always taken for granted. For Mike this was spurred on by a conviction that the Bible was the key to reconciling his parents’ divorce. For me this was a matter of being in a position to lead small group studies and feeling an obligation to know how to “properly” guide the discussion in truth. Either way, we ended up on a similar course, discovering a whole new dimension of the Christian world and shedding the more fundamentalist aspects of our faith. I embraced the scientifically literate reconciliatory work of Biologos, the rationalism of C.S. Lewis and a view of the Bible that did not insist on inerrancy. I directed the group into a study based on Tim Keller’s ‘Reason for God’ DVDs to share my newfound appreciation for apologetics (and because I knew that Keller was a “safe” figure in the evangelical world despite accepting the validity of theistic evolution). I distinctly remember the hesitancy and nervous deliberation before hitting send on what I considered to be a controversial email that responded to a small-group discussion by offering support for the potential legitimacy of universalism. So I feel like I can relate to this stage of Mike’s story. It’s invigorating to discover that faith and intellectual integrity can coexist. But of course, that wasn’t the end of either of our stories.

Don’t Stop Believin’

The thing about apologetics is that there are two sides to the argument. Once you dive in, its hard to miss the views that the apologetics are intended to rebut and eventually you’ll see the true depth of the argument rather than the strawmen that the apologetic often sets up. Mike entered willingly into that fray, confident that his newfound perspective could hold up to scrutiny. I’m not sure how I was drawn into a more deliberate review of the arguments from the other side; I think I just gradually stumbled into more and more encounters with the opposing views until suddenly one day I found myself with a big pile of unsatisfactory explanations for what was starting to look more and more like my own private brand of Christianity. It was time to test the quality of the truths I held. Books needed to be read.

Deconversion stories don’t always have a clear tipping point. Some people just gradually fall away from the faith while others can distinctly recall a gestalt switch moment. Mike encountered his gestalt switch while reading Carl Sagan’s ‘Pale Blue Dot’, which led him to really question whether it made sense to impart a purpose behind the immense vastness of the universe. His prayer the next morning was simply “God, I don’t know why I’m praying. You aren’t even real” and he was instantly struck with a sense of existential nihilism and profound grief.

My gestalt switch moment also came in response to a book. I was sitting in my truck after work and had just finished listening to the audiobook for Bart Ehrman’s ‘Misquoting Jesus’. The primacy of humanity in the development of the Christian faith tradition was more apparent than ever and I found myself saying something like “Doesn’t this all* make more sense if there isn’t a God behind it?”. Like Mike, I experienced an instant reaction to that verbalization but it bore a vastly different quality. Rather than darkness and defeat I was struck by a sense of shock and wonder – shock at the fact that I had actually just assented to a reversal of a lifelong belief, and wonder at the prospect of a universe that could be understood on its own terms. As bizarre as it may sound, I distinctly remember helping my wife make the bed that evening and perceiving the billowing of the sheets as if it was this intricate dance between different forces of nature. It was as if I could finally see the world for what it really was. I was Neo and the veil over the matrix was gone.

*To be clear, when I say “this all”, the sentiment extends well beyond the Bible and includes all of the aforementioned unsatisfactory explanations. Ehrman’s book was simply the straw the broke the camel’s back.

Worlds Apart

The gestalt switch moment may be subjectively profound, but the novelty wanes and we eventually must contend with the a world that has carried on, oblivious to our revelation.

I find it difficult to express the incredible fear associated with the public disclosure of a loss of faith. In retrospect the extreme trepidation almost seems ridiculous, but the strong social dynamic and binary nature of the Christian identity combine to present a daunting hurdle for the apostate. Couple this with a family bond and the whole thing is absolutely terrifying. I guess that’s why Mike went on putting up a facade for two years; teaching classes, serving in ministries, playing worship songs and even leading his daughter through a confession of faith! I, on the other hand, wasn’t able to last more than a few months. The masquerade was more than I could bear.

Case in point – I distinctly remember the first time my newfound perspective started to leak out. It was probably only a few weeks after that moment in my truck and I was leading our small group through a study that for some reason included a reading of the story of Uzzah in 2 Samuel 6 – you know, the one where God kills Uzzah on the spot because he touched the ark to steady it after the ox had tripped. Seeing this story with fresh eyes, I found myself unable to resist asking the group whether they thought it extreme and callous for God to respond this way to a person’s instinctual reaction, to which one member of the group responded by saying that “rules are rules”. I was dumbstruck. After a brief period of uncomfortable silence, I somehow managed to make it through the rest of the night without incident and started this blog shortly thereafter.

Fast-forward a couple months and I had reached my threshold for pretending. I broke the news to my wife, shortly after Christmas, and subsequently excused myself from all roles in the church. The marital strain was almost certainly the most difficult part of the whole process. It created a distance between us that I had never felt before and have never felt since. Here I find agreement with Mike, who describes the night after revealing his unbelief to his wife:

“We went to bed, and for the first time in our marriage, an iron curtain ran down the center of the mattress. We were in bed together, but we weren’t together. A rift had opened up between us.”

As dramatic as that sounds, Mike and I had it good. Many marriages have disintegrated under these circumstances and though Mike’s wife followed up the next day with “I’m not sure we can be married anymore”, in the end it appears that we were both fortunate to have partners who were thoughtful enough to see past the marital apocalypse and believe in a relationship that could survive ideological boundaries. I sincerely echo Mike’s appreciation for a wife and family who are committed to unconditional love – it makes all the difference. But then our stories diverge again.

Open Arms

The closing chapter caps off the narrative portion of the book with a climactic event that offers the most dramatic contrast to my own journey. I’ll skimp on the details again and just say that Mike had a religious experience which involved hearing a voice and – several hours later – encountering an unexpected literal wave that was immediately followed by a metaphorical wave of transcendent, ineffable, mystical goodness. The tremendous impact this had is evident in both the retelling and the ongoing role it has played in shaping his journey since that time.

I can’t say that I’ve ever had an experience like this. Sure, I’ve had deeply emotional moments that were initiated through a religious context but, as far as I can tell from the description, they were nothing like this. Still, I can’t help but wonder whether I have actually experienced circumstances similar to Mike’s but in which I failed to perceive the divine and so also failed to summon the kind of transcendent response in which it culminated. I suspect that most deconverts can relate to having questioned whether God was trying to get their attention through spontaneous thoughts, coincidences and other circumstances in which a message or purpose can be found. So I can’t help but find myself wondering whether the crescendo of the events leading up to Mike’s beach encounter, and his generally emotional disposition, set the stage for a strong and sudden flood of emotions (at 3AM, no less) that birthed an overwhelmingly ineffable experience. Maybe. Or maybe it was God. I have no way to know. And therein lies the difficulty.

Regardless, the narrative portion of the book was an engaging read that clearly isn’t trying to sell anything and appears to present an honest portrayal of his journey. I find no reason to question Science Mike’s sincerity and I respect the way he has integrated the full body of experiences into his current position – a position that I consider to be rational in spite of any differences we may have. In Part 2 I’ll move on to explore the second half of the book, where Mike expounds on the foundations of his reconstructed faith.

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Consciousness and the Brain

Last month a commenter suggested that “I would be interested to see you research and post on ‘How science addresses the subjective, in relation to consciousness and freewill'”, to which I responded that I might write up a summary of the ways this is addressed in the book I was reading, Stanislas Dehaene’s “Consciousness and the Brain: Deciphering How the Brain Codes Our Thoughts”. Furthermore, the comment offered a particular direction to consider, namely that science can “collate and analyse subjective reports and hope something comes out of this – e.g. by correlating objective measurement with the subjective reports. … The problem with this is that these results are generally not accorded the same scientific status.” Dehaene actually spills a considerable amount of ink in the opening chapters addressing this concern. For example:

Consciousness and the Brain“This research strategy was simple enough, yet it relied on a controversial step, one that I personally view as the third key ingredient to the new science of consciousness: taking subjective reports seriously. … The participant’s introspection was crucial: it defined the very phenomenon that we aimed to study.” (pg 11)

“The correct perspective is to think of subjective reports as raw data. A person who claims to have had an out-of-body experience genuinely feels dragged to the ceiling, and we will have no science of consciousness unless we seriously address why such feelings occur. In fact, the new science of consciousness makes an enormous use of purely subjective phenomena, such as visual illusions, misperceived pictures, psychiatric delusions, and other figments of the imagination. Only these events allow us to distinguish objective physical stimulation from subjective perception, and therefore to search for brain correlates of the latter rather than the former.” (pg 12)

“All this evidence points to an important conclusion, the third key ingredient in our budding science of consciousness: subjective reports can and should be trusted. … introspection is a respectable source of information. Not only does it provide valuable data, which can often be confirmed objectively, by behavioral or brain-imaging measures, it also defines the very essence of what a science of consciousness is about.” (pg 42)

The Recipe

Those quotes refer to three key ingredients which go beyond the objective data about brain activity that we can gather through fMRI, EEG and the like. Dehaene identifies these ingredients as conscious access, manipulation of conscious perception and, as noted, careful recording of introspective reports. He then goes on to further define each of these.

Conscious access is defined as the awareness of specific information – it’s the foundational definition of consciousness that underpins more elaborate attributions, like self-awareness. As is elucidated in the book, our brains actually consume massive amounts of perceptual data. Much of what is received by our senses and processed in our brain eludes our conscious awareness. Conscious access is that sliver of data which enters our stream of thought from amongst the mountain of perceptions which bombard us from without and arise from within.

Our conscious access is reportable. As I type this, you are receiving a report of my conscious access. We cannot report on that which we are unaware of, so it is by definition that reports are only informative with regard to the content of our conscious access. Experiments can build upon this by asking participants to focus on a particular element of their perceptual space that has been carefully crafted by the experimenters. This manipulation of conscious perception is the experimental variable that allows the researchers to segregate the data into that which correlates with consciousness and that which does not. Dehaene outlines several primary manipulations – binocular rivalry, attentional blink, subliminal stimuli – and references several others throughout the course of the book. Each of these present an opportunity to separate conscious processing from unconscious processing and so look for the signatures of consciousness.

Dehaene then goes on to highlight the massive amount of work that our brains are doing subconsciously and how this surreptitiously influences our conscious access. Research in this domain paints a picture of the inverse side of consciousness and offered a baseline against which consciousness can be compared. After taking a side trip into discussions about the viability of the evolutionary origins of consciousness as a tool for organizing and prioritizing the competing interests in our subconscious processes, we are introduced to the findings that this recipe has thus far wrought.

Finding Consciousness

The toolkit described above has been extensively deployed in the lab and the cumulative results led Dehaene to identify four reliable signatures of consciousness. They are:

dehaene_fig16

[1] “Although a subliminal stimulus can propagate deeply into the cortex, this brain activity is strongly amplified when the threshold for awareness is crossed. It then invades many additional regions, leading to a sudden ignition of parietal and prefrontal circuits” (Fig 16, pg 119)

(2) "In the EEG, conscious access appears as a late slow wave called the P3 wave. This event emerges as late as one-third of a second after the stimulus: our consciousness lags behind the external world."

[2] “In the EEG, conscious access appears as a late slow wave called the P3 wave. … For conscious words only, the wave of activity is amplified and flows into the prefrontal cortex and many other associative regions, then back to visual areas. This global ignition causes a large positive voltage on the top of the head – the P3 wave.” (Fig 18, pg 123)

dehaene_fig20

[3] “A long burst of high-frequency activity accompanies the conscious perception of a flashed picture … When viewers failed to see the picture, only a brief burst of high-frequency activity traversed the ventral visual cortex. … Conscious perception was characterized by a lasting burst of high-frequency electrical activity, which indicates a strong activation of local neuronal circuits.” (Fig 20, pg 136)

dehaene_fig21

[4] “The synchronization of many distant brain regions [form] a global web … during conscious word perception, causal relations show a massive bidirectional increase between distant cortical regions, particularly with the frontal lobe. Only a modest and local synchronization occurs when the participants fail to perceive the face or word.” (Fig 21, pg 138)

The common attribute which ties these signatures together is that they all represent prolific activity across large areas of the brain. In contrast to Descartes’ pineal soul-suite, the evidence points to consciousness as a phenomenon that is spread throughout the brain when a massive avalanche of distributed activity is launched. This excitation is what Dehaene calls “global ignition”. After having presented all of the correlative data Dehaene anticipates a common objection – correlation does not equal causation – and so he offers evidences to support the proposal that brain activity is more than just a side-effect of the ghost in the machine and that there are reasons to believe we are glimpsing consciousness itself.

“Let us play devil’s advocate again … Might [global ignition] bear no specific relation to the details of our conscious thoughts? Might it just be a surge of global excitation, unrelated to the actual contents of subjective experience? … Calling such a brain event the medium of consciousness would be like confusing the thump of the Sunday newspaper on our doorstep with the actual text that conveys the news.” (pg 142-143)

The first stop for the counter against this objection comes at the Centre for Systems Neuroscience at the University of Leicester in the UK, where Rodrigo Quian Quiroga enjoys probing individual neurons and finding ways to incorporate pop culture icons into his experiments. He has spent the last decade examining the relationship between conscious access and discrete patterns of neural firing at the level of individual neurons. The short story is that through a novel technique pioneered by Itzhak Fried, we have been able to take advantage of the surgeries performed on epilepsy patients to implant fine electrodes that record from individual neurons. When these are monitored during experiments there are very specific relationships found between perceptual and recollected concepts and individual neurons. Those experiments have not only identified a link between concepts and individual neurons, but the same tools used to investigate consciousness have been utilized to show that some neurons are only linked to conscious perception of stimulus – in effect, the neuron can be said to be a part of a conscious thought. These findings have been documented across many publications, but a few of the key overview papers are “Concept cells: The building blocks of declarative memory functions” and “Brain Cells for Grandmother“. Furthermore, similar findings led to the awarding of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the discovery of place cells; individual neurons which correlate with our location in space. These were first discovered in rats and then subsequently also identified in humans. The extrapolations we can draw from the discovery of an association between individual cells and conscious perception are potentially monumental. In particular, it does not seem inconceivable that perhaps some day we may be able to translate the philosopher’s qualia as a pattern in the brain.

tms_1911

Transcranial magnetic stimulation in 1911 (C.E. Magnusson and H.C. Stevens)

While fascinating, the added specificity of the single neuron experiments has not yet established causation. It could be that those individual neurons are simply assigned dedicated roles as the bridge between body and particular concepts of the mind. Perhaps in those experimental observations we are simply bystanders watching as the train of thought passes by. That is not impossible, but there’s more to examine. The next stop starts with a bit of time travel back to the early 20th century, when several parties began toying with transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) and reporting various sensory anomalies in conjunction with the activation of the coils. Vast improvements in the equipment have allowed these experiments to continue today with sharp precision that enables experimenters to focus the stimulus to specific regions of the brain. In doing so, they have been able to trigger domain specific sensory illusion – light when there is none to be found, motion while sitting still and color in a monochrome scene.

Perhaps more significant, however, is not the creation of sensory perception through TMS, but rather the disruption of consciousness itself through the same mechanism. Magnetic pulses targeted toward the long-distance networks that facilitate global ignition have been shown to eradicate a conscious perception that would have otherwise obtained. Even more relevant to the question of the interplay between the subjective and the objective is a study in which the prefrontal lobes were overwhelmed with pulses, leaving an effect which lasted up to 20 minutes. During this time, the subjects were asked to perform simple tasks of judging shapes that were presented to them. Objectively, their accuracy was effectively equivalent to their performance prior to the stimulation. Subjectively, however, they reported significant doubt in their answers. Objectively they were just as capable but their conscious awareness of their judgement had been impaired.

Before closing this section I must acknowledge that for the resolute dualist, we still haven’t fully addressed the objection. Maybe the TMS is acting in the place of our sensory input, stimulating or disrupting those neural mind-bridges in such a way that the mind thinks it is receiving or missing sensory data. OK, then let’s go beyond the content of the book and take a look at some additional research. If we say that the mind is distinct from matter then theoretically our memories are also made of mind stuff. However, starting about 70 years ago with Wilder Penfield experiments have been shown to trigger memory recall through direct electrode stimulation of specific brain regions. Whereas the dualist could argue that this stimulation is no different than the recall we experience when a familiar sight or sound is encountered through sensory input, the distinction becomes apparent when stimulation is used to disrupt conscious memory recall. For example, by acting directly on brain regions associated with verbal memory, electrical stimulation can directly impair recall of names for familiar objects and this phenomenon is often used to locate brain function through the process of cortical stimulation mapping. It is not that the person’s sensory perception of the object is disrupted but rather that their recall of the memory content which associates words with the object has been impaired. I find it difficult to understand how this result fits into a dualist framework.

In total, there is a large body of evidence that the content of our thought-life is causally connected to our neurology. We have opened an objective window onto the world of the subjective and on to consciousness itself. Massive projects are underway and, though we are still far from grasping the means of translation between the subjective and the objective, the future appears to be one in which mind and matter are proven to be one and the same.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Dehaene outlines his theory of consciousness in the fifth chapter but it’s really just a review of the ideas that he has already outlined in the previous chapters. His theory, in short, is that consciousness is roughly equivalent to the concept of “global ignition” introduced above, with the added dimension of feedback loops containing the information which persists to define our subjective experience. This is what he calls the “global neuronal workspace” theory. Information is shared throughout the brain as an evolutionary adaptation which allows us to utilize it in various ways and prioritize our attention. Within this discussion several neural computer simulations are presented which demonstrate a similar type of threshold ignition and feedback, which is central to the theory, even though that particular behavior was not deliberately designed into the model. Then, having built his theory of consciousness upon the key signatures identified above, Dehaene sets out to find a way to test it. It is one thing to find correlates of consciousness, it is quite another to use that information to build a reliable “consciousness-o-meter”.

Jean-Dominique-Bauby

Jean Dominique Bauby and his secretary

The proving ground for this theory is found in one of the most difficult medical scenarios; that of the vegetative patient. We are introduced to the spectrum of states which manifest in response to a severe insult to the brain: from brain death, to a vegetative state, to minimal consciousness and locked-in syndrome. That last of these occurs when a fully conscious brain is “locked in” to an unresponsive body, as was the case for Jean-Dominique Bauby when he authored The Diving Bell and the Butterfly with just one blinking eye. The difficulty in these cases is that with only the subject’s external, objective behavior available to the clinician, the ability to determine whether there still any internal conscious life and hope for recovery is radically impaired. What’s worse, the manipulative tools which were used to detect the signatures of consciousness in the lab are also taken out of contention due to the inability to rely upon the subject’s ability to focus their sensory perception and report on their conscious access. An alternative technique relies on the observation that we are wired to detect novelty, such that changes in our surroundings trigger a response in the brain. This trigger, however, fires even if the novelty never enters our conscious awareness. That, in turn, means that the novelty itself is not sufficient for establishing the baseline that discriminates between the unconscious response and conscious detection of the change. To get around this the research team devised a clever tool called “global auditory novelty”. Relying upon the fact that the sense of hearing is rarely lost in these brain injuries, the subjects were presented with a pattern of four “beeps” following by a “boop”. The “boop” represents the local novelty which triggers the subconscious alert that something has changed, which may or may not enter our consciousness. Our long-term, or “global” conscious perception, however, is a bit more sophisticated. Once this pattern is repeated enough times the “boop” becomes part of the expected sequence even though it triggers the alert in the brain. This causes the “boop” to eventually slip out of our conscious awareness. So, by repeating the pattern several times and then replacing the local deviant “boop” with a global deviant “beep”, the team was able to induce a situation in which the subconscious alert was silent while the conscious detection of a global novelty was ignited.

What was the result? In the initial trial with eight patients, all three of the minimally conscious patients whose EEG’s lit up with the P3 wave in response to the global novelty later regained consciousness. In a subsequent study with 22 vegetative subjects only two yielded a P3 wave and they both became minimally conscious in the following days. While these initial tests were perfect in that they never yielded a false positive, there were still several false negatives. To address this the group compiled their data and ran a statistical analysis to refine the prediction from the EEG waveforms. This refined calculation, which incorporated the full suite of EEG data and the other signatures beyond just the P3 wave, led to an exciting result. Using a data set of over 200 patient they found that in 33% of the cases where the clinical diagnosis was “vegetative state”, the refined analysis yielded an alternative diagnosis of “minimally conscious”. Of these, a full 50% recovered to a clinically obvious conscious state in the next few months, whereas this false negative rate was otherwise only at 20%. Adding these up, we see that the clinical diagnosis was overly pessimistic for 30% of the patients while the EEG signature diagnosis was overly pessimistic for only 13% of the patients. For families struggling with questions about how to manage the care of their loved one as they cling to life, this objective detection of consciousness through physical measurement of brain activity may be the key to maximizing the realization of their hopes.

The Future

Dehaene spends the last chapter of the book examining the ways in which the science of consciousness will continue its assault on the mystery of the subjective experience. Here we are presented with data to show that the global workspace theory of consciousness tells us that infants are conscious at birth and that several other animals exhibit the signatures of consciousness. He then turns his attention to the philosophical problems of qualia:

“My opinion is that Chalmers swapped the labels: it is the ‘easy’ problem that is hard, while the hard problem just seems hard because it engages ill-defined intuitions. Once our intuition is educated by cognitive neuroscience and computer simulations, Chalmers’s hard problem will evaporate. The hypothetical concept of qualia, pure mental experience detached from any information-processing role, will be viewed as a peculiar idea of the prescientific era, much like vitalism” (pg 262)

and free will:

“Our brain states are clearly not uncaused and do not escape the laws of physics – nothing does. But our decisions are genuinely free whenever they are based on a conscious deliberation that proceeds autonomously … When this occurs we are correctly speaking of a voluntary decision – even if it is, of course, ultimately caused by our genes, our life history, and the value functions they have inscribed in our neuronal circuits.” (pg 264-265)

While I am not yet willing to express a level of confidence on par with Dehaene regarding his conclusions, I am obliged to say that I agree (and I posted similar thoughts on free will in the post which inspired those introductory comments last month). Even so, neuroscience may never be able to deal an incontrovertible death blow to the dualist paradigm. Like Sagan’s infamous garage dwelling dragon, the mind can always be excused from questioning and made into an extra immaterial layer that mirrors the brain even at the level of individual neurons and synapses. At some point, however, it becomes clear that we are just playing games. When that time comes, if it hasn’t already, we need to acknowledge the data for what it is and the implicit conclusion that we are nothing more than our physical body; that our identity – our conscious self – is found in our brain.

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Mind and Cosmos

mind_and_cosmosThomas Nagel’s “Mind & Cosmos”, published in 2012, is almost certainly the book that has garnered the most attention over the last couple years in the God debate; and it has thus become required reading for those of us who are immersed in that milieu. My encounters with the book have primarily come through the off-handed endorsements of Christian apologists. It has become a weapon of choice for defense of the theistic worldview. Conversely, the naturalists were quick to call foul. Most famously, Steven Pinker called it “the shoddy reasoning of a once-great thinker.” Deeply critical negative reviews abounded and those who rushed to Nagel’s defense were quick to suggest that he was, in an ironic twist, being treated like a heretic by the clergy of the church of science. With all of this in mind, my goal was to approach this book via the middle road, as someone seeking truth wherever it may be found. There’s no doubt that I am flawed and biased, but I honestly hope that I came to the text with an open mind.

So what is all the fuss about? Perhaps the subtitle of the book says enough: “Why the materialist neo-darwinian conception of nature is almost certainly false.” That’s a pretty bold statement which, when viewed through the lens of the God debate, clearly lands in the theist’s camp. Furthermore, students of apologetics will quickly recognize that the content bears a striking resemblance to some of the key objections to naturalism that have been levied by the likes of C.S. Lewis, Alvin Plantinga and J.P. Moreland. The primary difference here is that Nagel’s work does not go on to endorse a theistic solution.

Silver bullets…?

Nagel spends the first two chapters of the book – about 30 pages – outlining the high-level view of his concerns with naturalism. It is here that he introduces us to the “failure of psychophysical reductionism” and identifies three ways in which this failure is realized: in theories of consciousness, cognition, and value – each of which serve as the titles for the substance of the argument in the next three chapters. By this point the territory had grown familiar and I couldn’t help but wonder whether Nagel was fully aware that his thesis mirrors three of the most philosophically prominent arguments for the existence of God. He cites contemporary secular philosophers, such as Sharon Street, as his primary interlocutors yet on the theistic side we get little more than a single footnote reference to Plantinga’s “Where the Conflict Really Lies”. Whereas the apologetic versions of these arguments essentially all boil down to “Nature cannot produce (or access) X, thus God.”, Nagel is affirming everything before the comma and leaving everything after as an open question; though he does prod us toward accepting the possibility of an impersonal teleological force. Nevertheless, allow me to summarize his points and show how they couple into the case for theism.

Consciousness

What it's like to be a batHere we find Nagel reaffirming ‘the hard problem of consciousness’, as he has done in the past. In his 1974 essay “What is it like to be a bat?” he closed with the statement that “it seems unlikely that any physical theory of mind can be contemplated until more thought has been given to the general problem of subjective and objective.” 38 years later, this chapter takes it a step farther and suggests that the subjective cannot be reduced to the physical:

“if Ψ [a mental event] really is Φ [a physical event] in this sense, and nothing else, then Φ [a physical event] by itself, once its physical properties are understood, should likewise be sufficient for the taste of sugar, the feeling of pain, or whatever it is supposed to be identical with. But it doesn’t seem to be. It seems conceivable, for any Φ [physical event], that there should be Φ [a physical event] without any experience at all” (pg 41).

In the next section this conclusion is then applied to the evolutionary story:

“Since a purely materialist explanation cannot do this [explain the appearance of conscious organisms], the materialist version of evolutionary theory cannot be the whole truth” (pg 45).

To put it briefly, the ‘hard problem’ amounts to the difficulty we have in translating the experiential (qualia) to the descriptive, and it seems clear that any physical explanation is inherently descriptive. To this the theist agrees and then asks, “What now?” The God answer has most notably been advanced by Richard Swinburne (see The Existence of God) and J.P. Moreland (see Consciousness and the Existence of God).

Disclaimer: These two books are on my list but I have not yet read them and am working from the content available online. Reader beware (even though I may have stumbled into full versions of the texts).

These heavyweights of Christian philosophy propose that consciousness is not only incompatible with a purely physical cause but that its very nature begs for a personal cause that is itself conscious. Why? To quote Moreland,

“on a theistic metaphysic, one already has an instance of consciousness and other mental entities, e.g. an unembodied mind, in God. Therefore, it is hardly surprising that finite consciousness or other mental entities should exist in the world. However, on a naturalist view, mental entities are so strange and out of place that their existence (or regular correlation with physical entities) defies adequate explanation. There appear to be two realms operating in causal harmony and theism provides the best explanation of this fact.”

Swinburne starts with the same assumption and then makes this being personal and gives him motivation for creating us by appealing to the moral capacity of conscious beings, wherein beings which can choose to do good are a valuable addition to the universe. Good activities include relationship and love and so the origin of consciousness should have these qualities as well.

If we grant that consciousness cannot arise from the physical then I honestly think I would favor the apologist’s proposition. If consciousness truly is something fundamentally significant and distinct from physical reality then explaining its origin in terms of an advanced, transcendent consciousness seems more sensible than positing a disinterested or unintentional source. This may not get us to a particular formulation of what that transcendent consciousness is, but it leads the way to further discussion. Regardless, the obstacle lies in that first clause – in establishing the failure of the naturalist account.

Cognition

“We take ourselves to have the capacity to form true beliefs … We don’t take these capacities to be infallible, but we think they are often reliable, in an objective sense, … human life assumes that there is a real world … and that there are norms of thought which, if we follow them, will tend to lead us toward the correct answers. It assumes that to follow those norms is to respond correctly … It is difficult to make sense of all this in traditional naturalistic terms.” (pg 72)

Nagel goes on to grant that it does make sense from an evolutionary perspective for our faculties to accurately represent the world. Even more, he cogently describes the standard evolutionary explanation for cognition through the adaptive benefits of the mental faculties that enable us to generalize and symbolize and, at the end, acknowledges that the story as a whole is not impossible. Section 3 then commences with the deconstruction.

The first criticism raised is the circularity of reliance on our reasoning. He points out – and correctly so, in my opinion – that when we evaluate the evolutionary story and find it to be an adequate explanation of our capacity for reason, we are in fact relying on that very explanation in the process. The second shot is aimed at our ability to discern truth. Whereas consciousness may render a generally accurate picture of our immediate environment, reason allows us to step out of our subjectivity and compare and contrast data from an objective standpoint to locate truth. The reasons why we might see this as an obstacle to physical explanation are less clear and largely intuitive: “it does seem to be something that cannot be given a purely physical analysis and therefore, … cannot be given a purely physical explanation.”

CS-LewisNot long ago I read C.S. Lewis’ Miracles. The first half of the book says very little about miracles and purposes instead to set the stage for the allowance of the supernatural. His central argument for the existence of something which transcends the material was an examination of Reason and our ability to utilize it. This has come to be known as the argument from reason (which is actively defended by Victor Reppert at dangerousidea.blogspot.com). The argument can be summarized as “How can the rational come from the irrational?” It builds upon our intuition, crafted by our experience, that the unconscious world is generally not oriented toward truth. Nothing in random natural processes seems to work toward discerning correctness. Why should evolution have ended up with something that did?

Plantinga’s evolutionary argument against naturalism argues the same position with a bit more philosophical depth and with the addition of the circularity observation that Nagel poses. I already discussed this argument a bit in a review of “Where the Conflict Really Lies”, so I won’t rehash that here. Regardless, both Lewis and Plantinga go on to suggest that if reason cannot be explained by the physical realm then the most sensible conclusion is that its presence in our world has its origin with something that is itself capable of reason, and which values rationality, and thus bestows that value upon us. Again, I find that this is a reasonable option if we agree that rationality necessarily transcends the physical. As before, it may not be the only conclusion but it is a strong and viable candidate.

Value

Nagel’s final concern with the physicalist paradigm rests on value realism. His opening section again acknowledges that the target, this time the subjectivist account of value, is “not flagrantly implausible.” The subsequent section continues to discuss the distinction between subjectivism and value realism and then interestingly closes with a concession about the case for value realism:

“There is no crucial experiment that will establish or refute realism about value… Positive support for realism can come only from the fruitfulness of evaluative and moral thought in producing results, including corrections of beliefs formerly widely held and the development of new and improved methods and arguments over time. The realist interpretation of what we are doing in thinking about these things can carry conviction only if it is a better account than the subjectivist or social-constructivist alternative, and that is always going to be a comparative question and a matter of judgment.” (pg 104-105)

This seems to indicate that he thinks that our recognition of progress is the best indicator of value realism; but he also recognizes that the identification of progress is itself subjective. Ultimately Nagel grants that his grounding for the objectivity of value is purely an intuitive feeling and, as such, very little time is spent defending that conclusion. Instead, Nagel spends the next couple chapters outlining his agreement with Sharon Street in her proposal that a purely Darwinian account of evolution is incompatible with value realism (see A Darwinian Dilemma for Realist Theories of Value).

It’s probably painfully obvious how this relates to the theistic worldview. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb if I propose that the moral argument is among the two or three most important and widespread arguments for God’s existence. It was a favorite of C.S. Lewis, and nearly every apologist thereafter. Francis Collins indicated that it was the key factor in his conversion. Briefly, the moral argument says that moral value exists independent of our opinion. Some things, like the oft cited “torturing babies for fun”, are truly wrong regardless of what we think. The theists then take the next step and ask where these moral truths come from. They do not appear to be a material part of the world and yet regularly guide our actions and serve as the explanatory foundation of our reasoning – which is the key to the theists proposition. When we keep asking why, we will usually eventually hit a wall made entirely of value judgments. If the answers to the “why” questions are not found in the answers to the “how” questions, and we are the only part of the physical realm which seems to care about the “why”, then the origin of those values is reasonably accounted for in something capable of valuing – something intentional and teleologically motivated.

For the sake of argument, lets grant the assumption of moral realism. When I take this stance, I am compelled to agree with the problems it poses for a undirected evolutionary account of our moral disposition. As I thus proceed to examine the alternative explanations for its existence, here again I find myself appreciating the theistic answer. Why? Because value seems to be intrinsically tied to intention, and intention infers purpose and an agent pursuing that purpose. If value is independent of humanity then it makes sense that it be grounded in something that retains intention and purpose. Without this, it would seem, value loses its value.

…or misfires?

But, in the end, I am unpersuaded. As indicated by the quotes from the book, the rejection of the naturalist explanation appears to be intuitively driven speculation on what is possible within the framework. Yes, the naturalist position on these topics is also speculative, but it is utilizing the world as we know it and trying to minimize additional assumptions. Accordingly, there are several points of momentum carrying the naturalist explanation, and I contend that the current is strong:

  1. There is a continuum of mental faculties in the animal kingdom. It seems that we can incrementally walk down the chain of neural complexity until the brain essentially becomes a scrutable set of chemical reactions. There is no obvious reason why we should draw a line somewhere and start assigning significance.
  2. Neuroscience has made it abundantly clear that the mental is, at the very least, co-dependent on physical aspects of the brain. If this much is indisputable then it seems extraneous to postulate something more when there is a readily identifiable explanation for our lack of complete understanding; namely the complexity and inaccessibility of the living brain. The insistence that qualia cannot be reduced to the physical seems to be begging the question. See my brief comment on the ontology of qualia for more on the relation between the physical and the mental.
  3. The naturalist program hinges on regularity. So far, in the course of history, we have identified regularities in the underlying explanation of nearly everything and the only exceptions bear the distinction of unresolved complexity – we see the regularity of the underlying parts, but have not unraveled their cumulative behavior. We have not yet, to my knowledge, identified anything which is simple yet unpredictably irregular. Is it not reasonable to suspect that this trend will continue? If there truly is a teleology shaping the world then it is an odd coincidence that it only manifests within instances of unresolved complexity.
  4. Aside from the possibility that the physical parameters of the universe were fine-tuned at its birth, the universe as a whole does not obviously have the appearance of one in which a powerful, directive force or being is actively working toward the goal of consciousness, cognition and value. Conversely, the universe is overwhelmingly void of these things and seems indifferent to their permanence. It is conceivable that there are universes in which the life that sustains consciousness, cognition and value is less fragile, or in which the environment better supports that life. If Nagel’s teleologic force is constrained in its capabilities, or if I have misapprehended the possible set of life valuing universes, then this objection would disappear.

Accordingly, I simply do not see how a non-teleological evolutionary theory fails to enable consciousness, cognition and value. Physical reproduction is inherently dependent on the acquisition and manipulation of material that is external to the replicating being. A reproductive process which never replenished or adopted outside material would quickly come to an end. This means that accurate interaction with the outside world is imperative to reproductive success. Any system which does this better than its ancestor is more likely to flourish. Accordingly, what may have started as the most simple of interactive functions would be expected to improve as change creeps in. Eventually, the combination of consciousness and cognition yields the coordination of multiple external stimuli, an increased sample size by incorporating past experience, the projection of the past to the future to guide anticipatory motor control, and a generally accurate inference of the external world beyond our immediate perception. The associative machinery in our brain builds links based on real world input and so, when those links strengthen one interpretation over another, we favor it as truth. As more experience and information is added to those links the probabilities of aligning with truth increases and we gain an advantage in navigating the world. Finally, add the development of an innate bias toward that which is most beneficial to our survival and reproduction and out pops “value”. To top it all off, if those values are rooted in a common ancestry then they will be perceptually objective to the descendents.

The most inescapable criticism of this “just-so story” lies within the circularity of the naturalistic origins of our capacity to reason. I contend, however, that this is not limited to the naturalist. Everybody, it would seem, is trapped in this vicious circle. We necessarily start from a position of pragmatic reliance on our rational capacities and form our theory of its origin thereafter. Where the naturalist says “it’s reliable because it benefits survival”, the theist says “it’s reliable because God would not deceive”. Both parties have assumed the reliability of their cognition as a prerequisite to determining why it is reliable.

There is also definitely an intuitive appeal to the doubt that rationality can in some way arise from the irrational. Furthermore, this isn’t a concern that the naturalist can expunge with new evidence and further discovery. If the naturalistic explanation is true then this objection is here to stay and will only be reinforced as we learn more. I do not see, however, why it necessarily renders the story invalid. If all the evidence falls in line then we just have to accept where it points. Diverging from the evidence is a far less attractive option.

I commend Nagel for his continued willingness to think outside the box, go against the grain and challenge our assumptions. We all need to do this on a regular basis and society will never progress without those select few who break from the status quo. Even so, those ventures are only successful if they correspond with the reality of our world. It’s possible that I am among the masses who have been caught up in a false current and I am simply unable to see that I have been blinded to the faults of the “materialist neo-darwinian conception of nature” but, if that is so, then Mind & Cosmos has done nothing to snatch me from the rapids.

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A few comments on Plantinga’s “Where the Conflict Really Lies”

I don’t plan on commenting on every book I read but I was compelled to address what appeared to me to be some glaring omissions and one audacious claim in the argumentation found in Alvin Plantinga’s “Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, & Naturalism”. There were three particular assertions that caught my attention: (1) that evolutionary theory says nothing about whether it is unguided, (2) a logical proof that determinism is false, and (3) that unguided evolution cannot yield reliable beliefs (aka “the evolutionary argument against naturalism”, or EAAN).

There is no reason to believe that evolution is unguided?

WhereTheConflict

Ignoring the theological implications and biblical creation accounts, Plantinga says that “The scientific theory of evolution as such is not incompatible with Christian belief; what is incompatible with it is the idea that evolution, natural selection, is unguided.” I agree that it is not necessary to assert that evolution is unguided. There is no way that we can show that some supernatural agent is not overseeing the genetic changes which drive evolution. Fair enough. However, Plantinga goes on to say that “But that [the idea that evolution is unguided] isn’t part of evolutionary theory as such; it’s instead a metaphysical or theological addition.” What struck me is that Plantinga seemingly makes this claim without engaging with the foundational reasons why evolution is generally defined to be unguided. Instead, he chooses to review the arguments which show how complexity could arise by an unguided process. Yes, those arguments don’t prove that the process is unguided but that is beside the point. The task at hand is to find the best explanation for our observations. Is the best explanation that evolution is guided, or is the best explanation that evolution is unguided? When I survey the data, I see compelling reasons for inferring an unguided process. For example:

  1. The vast majority of species that have ever existed are now extinct. Natural selection occurs by killing off creatures with the less favorable property. Competition and death are fundamental components of the evolutionary process.
  2. It is far more likely that a mutation is neutral or deleterious than beneficial.
  3. What were once beneficial adaptations can become deleterious in the face of a changing environment.
  4. Artificial selection (for example, in dogs) has produced in hundreds of generations a degree of variation that is only comparatively realized in nature over thousands of generations.

Among others, these are all characteristics of evolution which, to me, infer an unguided process. The first observation demonstrates how wasteful, vicious and “immoral” the process is. If you want to argue that we have no reason to believe that God wouldn’t create through such mechanisms then that’s fine, but at least admit that it is not how we expect an all-loving, all-powerful, super-intelligent being to act and is among the least attractive of the possible methods (e.g., special creation). The second observation highlights how the process seems to be driven by a small fraction of changes in a probabilistic paradigm, which is almost by definition the opposite of a guided process. The third observation demonstrates that the result of selection does not always lead to a long-term benefit. Again, this seems to contradict an intelligence behind the outcomes. Lastly, the final observation reveals how inefficiently slow the changes are accumulated in nature, whereas a known intelligent agent (humans) has succeeded in utilizing the exact same underlying mechanisms to realize dramatic changes in a short period of time.

On the flip side, one could argue that the amazing outcomes of evolution – the eye, flight, the brain – are all pointers toward a guiding intelligence. I understand this view; it is truly amazing what has been wrought. I feel the draw of the design explanation when I consider the remarkable intricacies of life, but I also recognize that this pull arises because the design hypothesis is easier to relate to our experience (i.e., our intuitions are biased toward that model). This is not the place to rely on intuitions, however, so we must turn to the evidence. In a twist of irony, Plantinga has already included arguments which explain how these wonders may result from an unguided process. So the counter to the argument for guided evolution has been presented and acknowledged. As I see it, this means that the reasons for thinking that evolution is unguided weren’t addressed at all and the reasons for thinking that evolution is guided were found to also fit the unguided paradigm. I cannot agree that this conflict is merely superficial.

Determinism is logically impossible?

Though it is a minor side-note in the book, it immediately caught my attention. What an audacious claim – a logical proof that determinism is false! This warranted a closer look. The argument is as follows:

  1. A natural law is of the form “If the universe (U) is causally closed, then P.”
  2. Also take the conjunction of all natural laws to be “If U is causally closed, then P.”
  3. If determinism is true then the conjunction of all natural laws (If U is causally closed, then P) and a specific past state of the universe (PAST) necessarily entails the future (F).
  4. Using N to mean Necessarily, the above statement is equivalent to: N [if (if U is causally closed then P) and PAST, then F].
  5. Becomes:  N [if (either U is not causally closed or P) and PAST, then F]
  6. Becomes:  N [if [(PAST and P) or (PAST and U is not causally closed)], then F].
  7. This takes the form N if (p or q) then r, which means that both p and q entail r, hence
  8. N [if (Past and P) then F] and N [if (PAST and U is not causally closed) then F].
  9. The right hand side of #8 is obviously false because there is clearly a possible world that (i) shares its past with the actual world, (ii) is not causally closed (because perhaps God acted) and (iii) does not share its future with the actual world. Therefore, determinism is false.

I will admit that it took me several reads to follow this argument. In the end, however, I think I see the slight of hand (whether or not this was intentional, I do not know). It was my attempt to translate this into software code that clearly revealed the problem for me. Here’s the code:

function CreateFuture(Universe, Past) {
  if(Universe.CausallyClosed) {
    P = Universe.NaturalLaws;
  }
  return DoPhysics(P, Past);
}

My fellow software engineers will immediately recognize the bug in this function: if the universe is not causally closed then P is undefined and an attempt to use it to generate the future yields unpredictable results. This is the key to the problem with the proof. In step 5, Plantinga expands the proof to cover both branches of the conditional and infers that both branches are still bound within the definition of determinism. This then, of course, leads to the obvious result where the future created with defined natural laws may be different than the future created with undefined natural laws. Plantinga groups these outcomes together under the definition of determinism and declares that the internal inconsistency shows that determinism is false. This is completely invalid, however, because determinism is only defined to be the branch where the universe is causally closed. All other branches (or possible worlds) are something other than determinism. I am honestly a bit baffled that Plantinga chose to include this in the book.

Despite my rejection of this proof, I should note that I am not a strict determinist. I would consider myself something of a quasi-determinist. Quantum indeterminacy has shown us that we can’t (yet) predict all possible states, but the quantum effects adhere to a predictable distribution such that the macro-world, and even the molecular world, behaves according to the physical laws to the extent that we have accurately described them. In the absence of supernatural intervention the natural world is, for all practical purposes, deterministic.

Naturalism cannot yield reliable beliefs?

The central thesis of the evolutionary argument against naturalism (EAAN) is that, without a guiding force, there is no reason to believe that the evolutionary process would result in a belief forming system that yields true beliefs. As I read through the EAAN, I was eagerly anticipating Plantinga’s response to the following objection: evolutionary theory claims that well before any creature was conscious there were sensory systems that triggered responses which selected the population. Selection is dependent on beneficial interactions with the external world. If those interactions do not consistently and properly map to the outside world then they are less likely to be beneficial. Consciousness and belief formation are extensions of this rudimentary system. As such, the evolutionary processes which led to sensory response systems, and therefore also to consciousness and belief formation, are likely to produce reliable reflections of the outside world.

Finally, in chapter 10, part 5, section C he gets there. He introduces the objection with “Isn’t it just obvious that true beliefs will facilitate adaptive action?” and eventually follows-up with “Yes, certainly. This is indeed true. But it is also irrelevant.” Then comes the explanation: “We ordinarily think true belief leads to successful action because we also think that the beliefs cause actions, and do so by virtue of their content… But now suppose materialism were true: then, as we’ve seen, my belief will be a neural structure that has both NP [neuro-physiological] properties and also a propositional content. It is by virtue of the NP properties, however, not the content, that the belief causes what it does cause.” After providing several examples of how the content of beliefs result in action, he finishes with “Going back to materialism…If the belief had had the same NP properties but different content, it would have had the same effect on behavior.”

Plantinga immediately recognizes that materialism would deny that it is possible for two beliefs to have the same NP properties but different content. Then things get messy. He digresses into a brief discussion of how this isn’t the place to address how counterfactuals and counterpossibles should be used in argumentation. Then he closes the response with “..it doesn’t matter to the adaptiveness of the behavior (or of the neurology that causes that behavior) whether the content determined by that neurology is true.” Wait a second – isn’t that where we were before this whole objection was raised?

Is it just me, or did he completely misrepresent the naturalistic ontology of belief and then dismiss the objection to that misrepresentation without offering an explanation? It seems as if he has superimposed dualism onto naturalism and then argued against this bastard child. What really confuses me is that in the pages leading up to this he clearly defined the materialistic view as one in which belief content can be reduced to NP properties. Somehow, when it came time to address the big objection, this reduction no longer applied and content was now something completely separate from the physical. How did this happen? I re-read those pages several times and I just don’t get it. Am I in over my head? Did I miss something? I can’t help but feel like I did; but, then again, I’m far from being the only one who has seen problems with this argument. This turn of events left me bewildered and I can’t give any regard to the EAAN until this is resolved.

Closing Thoughts

This was my first encounter with any of Plantinga’s books, though I was familiar with his work and was well aware of his reputation as one of Christianity’s greatest thinkers. The writing generally lived up to the standard; the text was lucid and, in most cases, the arguments were easy to follow. It was a worthwhile read. In the end, however, I was severely disappointed that his key claims – the “apparent conflict” between theism and evolution and the “deep conflict” between naturalism and science – ultimately omit or dismiss the most relevant objections to those claims. Perhaps even more alarming was that he chose to publish a clearly flawed proof that determinism is false. Collectively these observations have done nothing but tarnish his reputation in my eyes. I had hoped for something more.

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My thoughts on The Case for Christ (Part 1, Section 3)

The Case For ChristThis post is the third in a series on Lee Strobel’s book, The Case for Christ. In this post I offer my thoughts on the content of the book’s third section, The Documentary Evidence. In this section Strobel evaluates the preservation of the gospels through the multitudes of copies produced over time. To do this he interviews the renowned textual scholar, Dr. Bruce Metzger. The investigation keys in on:

  1. The number of manuscripts
  2. The dating of the manuscripts
  3. Variants between manuscripts
  4. The formation of the canon
  5. The Gospel of Thomas and other extra-canonical writings

Part 1: Examining the Record

Section 3: The Documentary Evidence

Argument #1: The immense volume of copies of the gospels that we have available allows us to reconstruct with fairly high fidelity the original texts.

My Response: I agree that today we most likely have critically filtered through the variations to compile something that is a reasonable approximation of early versions of the gospels (except where the translators have failed to incorporate those findings). However, I think the term “original” is used too loosely in this discussion. A text is most susceptible to variation in its infancy and there’s good reason to believe that at least both John and Matthew were cultivated within a smaller community before seeing wider distribution and familiarity. The mountains of copies that we have are predominantly much later (by a very large margin) and the earliest manuscripts are all in very small fragments. The thousands of copies that date past the fourth and fifth century do little to help us reconstruct the earliest texts.

Argument #2: The number of copies and the temporal proximity of the copies to the events they describe far exceeds what we have for any other ancient texts.

My Response: Agreed. Relatively speaking, the bible has a strong foundation of manuscript evidence. However, the numbers bantered about in this section are geared toward leaving you with a false impression of the scope of the earliest evidence. No attempt is made to distinguish between the earliest manuscripts and the more abundant manuscripts that come several hundred years after the events. Nowhere do we read that there are only three fragments of the gospels which are likely to predate the third century and that these contain a sum total of 12 verses. See http://www.usefulcharts.com/religion/oldest-bible-manuscripts.html for a clearer perspective of the earliest manuscript evidence.

Argument #3: The variations in the manuscripts don’t jeopardize any theological doctrines. Most variations have to do with word order, spelling and minor changes that don’t impact the message of the text.

My Response: As a percentage, this is true. This is an area where I think that Ehrman has a tendency to overstate the significance of the number of variants. However, the discussion here is not balanced and fails to delve into the implications of the more substantial variants, like the longer ending of Mark or the story of the adulteress in John. These demonstrate that even 200 years after the earliest versions of the gospels were produced some copyists were willing to intentionally introduce noteworthy modifications. Not only that, but those modifications propagated downstream without scrutiny. This is an acknowledged fact that is worth further discussion.

Building on the acknowledgment of these larger variants, I want to take a moment to contemplate how this might have applied to the earliest texts. If our only evidence of the content of the writings that were produced in the first 150 or so years is a few tiny fragments, and if we see that there are some major variations in the subsequent texts, why shouldn’t we expect that some of the earliest copies also had major variations? Is it not more likely that these types of changes would have gone unchecked before the texts were more widely distributed and had gained familiarity? Does it not make sense that the earliest copies, produced by a minority culture without an established orthodoxy and many divergent groups, were handled by relative amateurs who were insiders of those groups and thus more likely to inject corruption? Do we really have good reason to believe that the first couple hundred years of the text’s transmission did not carry with it the introduction of new material that we now consider “original”, despite the fact that this was known to occur in later texts? I think not. Certainly we can’t hypothesize the extent of such redaction, but it is clearly reasonable to suspect that it probably happened.

Argument #4: The books included in the New Testament canon are the writings which meet all of the criteria of apostolic authority, consistency with tradition and acceptance by the church at large. The majority of the canon was unanimously accepted by the end of the second century. The gospels, in particular, bare the marks of authenticity which are not present in other accounts of Jesus’ life.

My Response: When it comes to the gospels, it is fair to recognize the supremacy of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John over the other known gospels. These four gospels are attested by Irenaeus around 180 AD and the early church fathers don’t really lend support to any of the extra-canonical gospels. That said, there is some evidence for additional early descriptions of Jesus which are relatively congruent with the gospels but didn’t make the cut for reasons which are unknown (for example, the Egerton Gospel and the Gospel of Thomas, which is discussed later). Furthermore, the implication in this discussion is that the criteria also hold for the rest of the New Testament, but that’s difficult to support given the likelihood that at least a handful of the epistles are pseudepigraphs, which would supposedly be a problem for identification as the inspired word of God. This topic is never broached.

Argument #5: The gospel of Thomas was properly excluded from the canon because, though it agrees with the gospel accounts more often than not, it is likely a later text and contains pantheistic and misogynist remarks which are in opposition to the picture we see in the gospels.

My Response: I don’t really have an opinion on this. I see merit to the argument that the Gospel of Thomas should be considered to be as authentic as any other gospel. I’m not sure, however, that this is enough to argue for inclusion in the canon. For one, it does not appear to have nearly the widespread recognition and tradition that the other gospels had. This would, at best, make it the least authoritative of the gospels. Regardless, it should not be readily dismissed in the same way that the much later and more clearly fantastical works are.

Closing Thoughts

There’s not all that much in this section that is controversial, but it’s also clear that we are not presented with a truly skeptical investigation. The discussion of the transmission of the gospels employs sweeping generalizations to hide the issues that are present. The presentation of the formation of the canon was about as bare bones as it could possibly be and every controversy related to the canon, except for the Gospel of Thomas, was ignored. However, my biggest objection to the picture painted in this section is the implication of what the “originals” are. It seems that the intent is to make it appear as if the text we have today is much the same as what could have been found shortly after Matthew, Mark, Luke or John had risen from the table where he had just finished composing the gospel. There simply is no good basis for such an inference and plenty of reason to doubt it.

In the next post I’ll look at Part 1, Section 4: The Corroborating Evidence, though I may have to start combining sections and skimming past some of the less significant arguments. It’s taking a lot longer to review and parse out the arguments than I thought it would.

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My thoughts on The Case for Christ (Part 1, Section 2)

The Case For Christ
This post is the second in a series on Lee Strobel’s book, The Case for Christ. In this post I offer my thoughts on the content of the book’s second section, Testing the Eyewitness Evidence. In the second section Strobel evaluates the gospels according to eight tests that are intended to check the integrity of the accounts. These tests are:

  1. The Intention Test (did the authors want to be accurate)
  2. The Ability Test (did the authors have the ability to report the truth)
  3. The Character Test (did the authors have a history of truthfullness)
  4. The Consistency Test (are the authors consistent in their claims)
  5. The Bias Test (is there reason to believe that the claims are biased toward a certain view)
  6. The Cover Up Test (does it appear that the authors withheld relevant information)
  7. The Corroboration Test (do the claims agree with external information)
  8. The Adverse Witness Test (do we have other claims which are contrary to the author’s claims).

Within each of these tests there are sometimes multiple arguments, so I have arranged my discussion to address each argument rather than just each test.

Part 1: Examining the Record

Section 2: Testing The Eyewitness Evidence

Argument #1: We can trust that Luke intended to write an accurate history because he tells us in the opening sentence that he had carefully examined the events. Matthew and Mark can be considered to be equally reliable due to the similar nature of their texts. Despite the admission in John that the text was intended to evangelize (20:31), this book can still be considered truthful because it is necessary to provide an accurate history if the author hopes to find acceptance for his message.

My Response: I’m inclined to believe Luke when he says that he researched the events, but that doesn’t mean he obtained accurate information or intended to uncover the truth at all costs. It seems most likely that his was an exercise of drawing from source texts and documenting oral traditions. It’s clear that Luke was an insider, not some objective investigator that was critically examining the information to arrive at the truth. His goal was to compile the stories circulating about Jesus and present them for a gentile audience. Apologists like to present Luke as if he was a modern day detective or some hyper-critical historian who’s primary concern was the integrity of his work, but there’s little reason to think this is the case and many reasons for questioning such a view.

Given that the synoptics used common source material, it should be obvious that they would then be similar. It doesn’t entail that they were intended to be wholly accurate histories. One of the more apparent counter-examples is the way that Matthew repeatedly takes Old Testament verses way out of context to map them to Jesus. One can’t help but feel that this is in some sense dishonest.

With respect to the Gospel of John, Blomberg again argues that an evangelistic purpose requires dutifully accurate reporting. Again, this is absurd. We don’t say that “history is written by the victors” to imply that the account is thus trustworthy. The implication is just the opposite, that we should wary of bias in the records produced by those in support of a cause or an allegiance.

Argument #2: The gospels were not composed as a response to the fact that Jesus had failed to return in the first few decades after his ascension. We know this because Jesus’ teaching actually suggest a long time span before his return and because his followers were accustomed to the long delayed fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies.

My Response: I had never before considered that Jesus’ failure to return in short order had actually been a catalyst for the authoring of the gospels. The long delayed rise of God’s eternal kingdom through the nation of Israel certainly does give the Jews a track record of faithfully waiting for prophecies to be fulfilled. However, I must disagree with the assertion that Jesus’ teachings actually infer a long period time before his return. There are clear indications that the events are to occur in the near future and Blomberg offers nothing to support his claim that this is not the case. Furthermore, it seems that the Jews had began to grow impatient and this was in part responsible for the apocalyptic culture of the day. Nowhere in those Old Testament prophecies do we see an indication of two comings separated by a long period of time. Therefore, the earliest followers who believed Jesus to be the messiah almost certainly expected the complete fulfillment of all the prophecies as an immediate consequence of his arrival; and this is exactly what we see in their writings. As to whether Jesus’ lingering absence was an impetus for the introduction of the gospel accounts, I do not see this to be an outlandish claim but I also see no reason to hold that it is true.

Argument #3: We know that the earliest church did not put words into Jesus’ mouth because of the care taken in the epistles to avoid and condemn false teachings and because of the abundant controversies in the early church that could have just as easily been resolved by back-editing the solution into the gospels.

My Response: When it comes to religious doctrine and unverifiable claims, how do we define false teaching? Without a presupposition that certain people have been accurately bestowed with a divine revelation, the identification of false teaching is entirely subjective. As such, an author may be genuinely opposed to false teachings yet actively propagating ideas which do not reflect the truth. The propagation of falsehood does not require blatant deceit, it requires only an ignorance of the truth and it will be spurred on even more by the boldness of one who believes that they have the truth. If proclamations against false teaching are considered an earmark of a trustworthy author then the same standard must also be applied to the Qur’an and other religious texts.

The presence of controversy in the early church in no way precludes the injection of ideology into the gospels. Conversely, it appears likely that this in fact did occur. For example, Mark gives us little indication of Jesus’ divinity and so we see that this is incrementally expanded in the later gospels. To say that controversies still existed even after the gospels had reached general acceptance is only to say that attempts to clarify and defend a particular view were not comprehensively and cohesively implemented across all of the gospels. It is ludicrous to suggest that the injection of ideology would have resulted in a perfect harmonization of the texts. This argument only serves to distract from the theologically driven redaction that did occur.

Argument #4: The reproduction of sayings and events by the eye-witnesses is credible because they were sourced by a culture that stressed the preservation of oral tradition through memorization. The variation in the synoptics is comparable to what we would expect from a group that memorized the key points. This culture of memorizing oral traditions is self-correcting because the collective memory of the community would override the faulty recollections of any one person.

My Response: There’s a lot I could say on this topic but I’d like to focus on one thing in particular. A key implication of this section is that the similarities in the synoptics are not due to plagiarism but rather due to memorization of a common source. Among other issues, there is one gigantic problem with this. Jesus and his followers almost certainly spoke Aramaic. The synoptics are in Greek. In order for the textual similarities to have arisen only due to a common oral tradition, we also have to assert that the translation of those traditions into Greek often produced the same words, sometimes verbatim, but more commonly with a few additions, subtractions or replacements. This claim also requires that events (not just sayings) were recounted with a common phrasing. If this seems a bit far fetched then you can appreciate why nearly all scholars agree that the best explanation for the commonalities in the synoptic gospels is that they were composed by authors who had common source texts on hand.

It’s difficult to describe the nature of the textual similarities that we find in the synoptics. The best way to understand this is by reviewing the side-by-side comparisons, so I encourage you to review the comparisons available at http://www.textexcavation.com/synopticlistedinventory.html. The color highlighting does a great job of demonstrating how words and phrases were added, removed or changed within the scope of a larger common text.

Argument #5: It is unlikely that the gospel sources would put forth dishonest claims because they were devoted to a life of integrity, as taught by their leader, Jesus, and evidenced by their willingness to die for their beliefs.

My Response: First, there is little evidence that the authors of the gospels died for their beliefs. At best, Mark may have been martyred but the others more likely died of old age. Second, I agree that the authors believed the majority of their text to be truthful. As humans engrossed in a religiously charged atmosphere there were almost certainly instances of embellishment, unchecked bias and unquestioning repetition of memes but, as a whole, I see no reason to think that the writers were being deliberately deceitful.

Argument #6: The variations and apparent contradictions in the gospels are actually a testament to their veracity because they demonstrate that the texts were not the result of collusion.

My Response: …except when it’s clear that the text was borrowed (see argument #4). That said, John does appear to be largely independent of the synoptics and this is good evidence of at least two separate but similar traditions. However, this claim completely dismisses the possibility that the apparent contradictions and differences between the texts could be due to:

  1. Actual differences in the veracity of the claims, and
  2. The introduction or revision of claims toward an ideological end.

I agree that the gospels are not a perfectly harmonious testimony that reeks of collusion, but it doesn’t follow that the differences are then thoroughly virtuous and can be dismissed. When we encounter incongruous statements, is not the best explanation that at least one of the delegates is wrong? Or that the parties are partially mistaken and the truth is a selective composite?

Argument #7: Discrepancies between the gospels can be typically explained under careful examination. Strobel raises several examples for which Blomberg then provides an explanation.

My Response: I’ve opted not to look at each of the contradictions individually because, as Strobel indicates in the book, you could go on forever reviewing the possible discrepancies and proposed solutions. Here’s my problem: when you put aside the presumption that the text is inerrant, it is nearly always the case that the proposed solution seems less likely than simply admitting that the author was wrong. We have thousands of years and a wealth of personal experience that confirms the fallibility of humans. These inconsistencies are just what we should expect if the bible was written by humans without some divine guidance that ensured its veracity. The cognitive dissonance created by the mountain of peculiar explanations that are necessary to prop up the doctrine of inerrancy is easily relieved by one simple explanation: sometimes the authors were wrong, just like every other author that has ever existed.

Argument #8: The gospel writers did not present a biased account because they honored and respect Jesus so much that they were prompted to record his life with integrity. The social pressures would have, if anything, influenced them toward downplaying Jesus.

My Response: To be fair, Blomberg only asserts that “I think that’s what happened here”. This is more or less just repeating his opinion than providing an argument. In addition to understating the possibility that the gospel authors intentionally embellished or injected bias, this claim also ignores the unintentional bias that colors everybody’s writing. This subconscious bias is very likely to produce inaccuracies and should not be overlooked.

Argument #9: The hard sayings and embarrassing details that are retained in the gospels are evidence that the authors were not hiding or changing anything because otherwise they would have left those out.

My Response: This is a close cousin to argument #3 and so my response is similar: on what basis should we assume that the inclusion of some unsightly details then necessarily infers that all troublesome passages were not refined or excluded? We cannot claim that this kind of “cover up”, as Strobel calls it, didn’t happen at all just because there are some instances where it would have made sense from our perspective to have glossed over the truth.

It may seem speculative to suggest that maybe there were liberties taken for which we are not aware, but this possibility is not without merit. The gospels reveal several instances where it appears that the later authors (Matthew and Luke) modified the content borrowed from an earlier source (Mark) to make the end result less difficult. For example, Blomberg mentions Mark 6:5 as an example of one of these embarrassing passages but fails to mention how it appears that there actually was an attempt to correct it. Mark says that Jesus could not do miracles in Nazareth and was amazed at their unbelief, whereas Matthews says that he did not do miracles there because of their unbelief. Luke goes a step further and leaves it out altogether.

Argument #10: The archeological corroboration of people and places in the gospels attests to their authenticity and veracity.

My Response: It is to be fully expected that the gospels would reference actual people and places if Jesus is a historical figure. This argument seems to be primarily targeting a mythicist view of Jesus. Regardless, the claims of corroboration exclude any discussion of historical discrepancies, such as the inconsistency between Matthew’s dating of Jesus’ birth in the reign of Herod (before 4 BC) and Luke’s placement of Jesus’ birth during the census of Quirinius* (6 AD). The most lucid explanation is that one or both were mistaken. Instead of facing these, Blomberg suggests that we should consider situations like this to be insignificant because they are overwhelmed by the number of times where the gospel account corresponds with the historical record. This, however, is simply a tactic to divert attention away from the fact that the gospels look just like other texts from the period – texts which are written by humans and contain normal human mistakes.

* Strobel does deal with the census later, in Chapter 5.

Argument #11: The lack of antagonistic efforts to expose the falsehoods in the teachings of the early church serve as evidence that the claims of the early church were authentic. The Jewish recognition of Jesus as a sorcerer is evidence that he did in fact work miracles.

My Response: My initial reaction is that it’s not clear why we should think that the early Christian movement rose to the level which would warrant public opposition (preserved for us) by those who were able to dispute its claims. The only account we have of the local church is in Acts, which very likely inflates the numbers. The most successful evangelist by far, Paul, focused his efforts outside of Israel. So, from the Jewish perspective, the threat had been squelched with the death of Jesus and nothing more was necessary. One could even turn this argument on its head and contend that the lack of opposition is the result of Jews knowing that they didn’t need to do anything because Jesus was dead. I do not wish to defend such a view, due to it’s highly speculative nature, but it doesn’t appear to be much weaker than the apologist’s claim that the opposition was silent because they knew that the Christians’ claims were true.

It is also quite a stretch to assert that the Jewish description of Jesus as a sorcerer somehow authenticates his miracles. First, the remarks in the Talmud come hundreds of years after Jesus, so they are not based on first hand knowledge but are rather a response to the Christianity known in that day. Second, the culture readily accepted the authenticity of sorcery and this was a perfectly acceptable, if not preferred, explanation for the claims that somebody performed miracles.

Closing Thoughts

For the most part, this section is arguing against a very particular brand of skepticism which asserts that the gospels are predominantly fairy tales and were intentionally constructed as such. The arguments presented may serve to combat such a view, but they do nothing to diminish a more moderate view in which the gospels are largely based on actual events that were cumulatively filtered over the years through the lens of a believing community with a predisposition for accepting both the theological and supernatural claims of others.

On the whole we are presented with a false dichotomy. The general inference of this section is that there are two options: either the gospels are reliable or they are a complete fabrication. By presenting a case that they are not a complete fabrication, the apologist claims victory and accepts that the gospels are wholly reliable. There is a blatant disregard for the myriad of possible views in the middle, views which I suspect offer the most probable reconciliation of the data.

In the next post I’ll look at Part 1, Section 3: The Documentary Evidence.

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