51S63V2EDNLQuid est veritas?

Perhaps the most provocative question of all time translates from Latin into English to query, “What is truth?”

According to John 18:38, Pontius Pilate asked this of Jesus prior to his crucifixion.

Some people believe that Jesus was only a man. Others believe Jesus never even existed. And there are also people like me believe the story told in the Gospel of John is basically accurate, and that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah and Son of God. Now I can confess that I believe the previous statement is true, but I can’t claim to know it is true.

Get the difference?

Not everyone believes that Shakespeare wrote his own plays. A movie called Anonymous asserted that Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, wrote and published those famous plays like Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet using the pseudonym of William Shakespeare. Francis Bacon and Christopher Marlowe have also been credited with the work of William Shakespeare, but there is no way to conclusively prove beyond all reasonable doubt  that William Shakespeare did not write his own material. We might even be able to back up our speculation with tantalizing bits of evidence, but we cannot establish something as a fact when we don’t have proof.

However, every person on Earth believes they possess absolute knowledge when in fact, we all have beliefs based on reasonable assumptions. Beliefs that are easily confused and twisted to the point where something probably real, or true has been accepted as a false, or a forgery…for example, the Shroud of Turin.

Quid est veritas? What is truth?

Is the Shroud of Turin real, or a clever, elaborate fake?

You can’t go wrong if you simply say you believe the shroud is real, or that you believe the shroud is a clever forgery, especially if you offer the most recent evidence in support of the belief the shroud is real. Or, you might cite the 1988 carbon dating test results to support your belief the shroud is not real.

What you can’t do is claim that you know the shroud is real or fake. Because you don’t. Nobody does. Quite frankly, it isn’t possible to know for sure the shroud is real, or to ever reach that conclusion. It may be possible one day to conclusively prove the shroud is a fake, but not likely given the current known scientific evidence and only limited access permitted by the Catholic church.

Once widely believed to be the burial covering of the crucified Christ, carbon dating tests conducted in 1988 allegedly proved the Shroud of Turin to be a forgery created between 1290-1360 A.D. Most recently revealed scientific evidence have provided ample grounds for dismissing the earlier results of the fatally flawed 1988 dating tests, due to contaminated sample material.

Does this mean that the shroud can be declared the authentic burial covering of the crucified Christ? Of course not.

All this new information means is that the rumors the shroud had been conclusively proved to be a forgery were just a tad premature. Likewise, the nonbeliever may wish to reject of the shroud as scientific evidence, it is only necessary to point out that lacking DNA, etc. conclusive proof cannot be established. Even if the shroud could be conclusively proved to have actually covered the corpse of someone crucified in the same manner as described in the Bible, there is no way it could ever be established beyond all doubt that the body in question belonged to Jesus. “The evidence fails to convince me personally,” is all the atheist really needs to say. However, “the evidence proves that the shroud is fake” is something the atheist cannot honestly claim.

Conversely, the Christian should be equally reticent to declare the shroud somehow proves the resurrection occurred or that it definitely covered the body of Jesus, because of the lack of DNA evidence. If your faith hinges on whether or not the shroud is real, you seriously need to focus on strengthening your faith.

Interestingly, in The Passion of the Christ, when Pilate asks his wife how to discern truth she replies, “If you will not hear the truth, no one can tell you.”

So what is truth?

About the only thing I know for sure is that the title of the movie named Truth is deliciously ironic.truth_2015_poster

Sorry for the abrupt segue from religion to politics, but it is that time of year.

When I try to rank the funniest movies of all time numerically, the classics come to mind: Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein. As Good As It Gets, Terms of Endearment, and Broadcast News. And of course, The Princess Bride.

Frankly, it never occurred to me that Truth would be as funny as some of my all-time favorite comedies.

What is the truth? Did George W. Bush go AWOL from the National Guard during the Vietnam War? That’s what the movie wanted to convince the audience to believe.

Cate Blanchett tries to portray Mapes sympathetically, as the “courageous” journalist scapegoated for daring to ask tough questions about the sitting President of the United States during a tough campaign for reelection.

In the movie Ms. Blanchett piously shouts at Bruce Greenwood (who portrays CBS News boss Andrew Heyward) “They can’t do this! They can’t smack us for asking the f-king question!”

But with all due respect, that isn’t why Ms. Mapes was fired by CBS News. Asking tough questions didn’t cost Dan Rather his job.

Using amateurish forged “documents” to support her otherwise unsubstantiated report that President Bush had gone AWOL from his National Guard service during the Vietnam War in the heat of a presidential campaign was the real reason Mary Mapes career at CBS abruptly ended.


Amateur sleuths on the internet quickly and easily proved the forged documents were created using Microsoft Word, which didn’t exist in the 1970s.

Pathetically, Mapes tries to redeem her reputation by arguing the documents were only a small part of the story, but that simply isn’t true.

The documents were the story. Without them, the story would not have been run in the first place.

Obviously, Mapes still believes the story that cost her her job was true, because the script for the movie was based on her memoir. It apparently has never occurred to the intrepid producer of national news with the power to shape millions of opinions that a Democrat politician (Bill Barnes) making drunken boasts at a Democratic fundraiser might have been lying through his teeth…politicians tend do that, you know. It was positively hilarious to watch Blanchett smugly assert that 60 Minutes was the “gold standard” for journalism.

Fool’s gold, maybe.

The film encourages the viewer to see Rather and Mapes as the courageous heroes of the tale, not as the blind fools who fell from grace due to their hubris.

Personally, I can think of a few other words that would have been a far more appropriate end to the career of Dan Rather. Bias, for example.

When asked by radio talk show host Don Imus about Bernard Goldberg’s accusation that his reporting exhibited a liberal bias toward conservative principles, Dan Rather famously said, “I’m in favor of strong, defense, tight money, and clean water. I don’t know what that makes me. Whatever that makes me, that what I am.”

How about “horribly partisan liberal hack former network news anchor?”

Probably too wordy, but almost certainly appropriate, considering that Rather has actually helped raise money for the Democratic Party.

The general public ought to know by now that we can’t trust the mainstream media because most media coverage is horribly skewed in favor of the Democratic Party. This problem isn’t confined to CBS News, of course.

George Stephanopoulos, host of This Week on ABC News, once worked for Bill Clinton. He also recently donated $75,000 to the Clinton Foundation. This little tidbit of information should eliminate any mistaken assumptions that George suddenly became fair and impartial overnight, when he transitioned from acting as a political operative to become a “news journalist.”

And don’t forget CNN’s Wolf Blitzer was caught on camera drinking champagne and dancing to Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” after Hillary Clinton’s acceptance speech, giving the general public some idea who he’d like to win.

Hollywood and the mainstream media have pulled out all the stops and done everything in their power to get Hillary Clinton elected. In spite of their best efforts, I must confess that I tend to agree with these average Joes (and Janes) than the average celebrity.

Quid est veritas? What is truth?

I don’t always know. But until I stop breathing, I won’t stop seeking truth.


The courage of Devon Gales

photo of Devon Gales from DawgNation website

photo of Devon Gales from DawgNation

Sympathy is defined as feeling sorrow for the misfortunes of someone else.

Empathy means you can literally understand, or at least to some degree share their experience.

This post will be very short and to the point, because I can only type with one hand at the moment. My left arm is temporarily useless.

I had elbow surgery this morning, and my anesthesiologist put a nerve block on my dominant arm. Probably until tomorrow, I won’t  be able to feel anything or use my left hand, a very strange experience that once again has reminded me of Devon Gales.

Please forgive any typos or unclear thoughts expressed by my currently drug-impaired brain. The loss of use of my arm is a very strange sensation, yet in my case it will be temporary. When this wears off I expect to welcome pain as the indicator my body wants to heal itself and didn’t enjoy this morning’s experience. My arm may be hurting right now, but I don’t care.images-4

In case you forgot or didn’t know, wide receiver Devon Gales was paralyzed last year while blocking on a kickoff return during a game between the Southern University Jaguars and the University of Georgia Bulldogs, in Sanford Stadium. However, for young Mr. Gales, full recovery will take much, much longer, He’s made tremendous progress that has been reported in the news, but there is a long way to go for a complete recovery, and the restoration of full use of his extremities.

Usually when I write about a tragedy, typically a request that people contribute financially will accompany my shameless attempt to pull on your heart strings.

Perhaps the Percocet is clouding my judgment, but I know how generous the Bulldog Nation is, and think it might even be offensive to assume you need to be asked, so this post won’t be asking you to contribute even more money.

In truth, I don’t even know that his family needs more assistance at this time, and the cup has overflowed with love and generous donations from the Bulldog Nation, for an opponent who became a Dawg through adversity.

Today, after my surgery, briefly I can empathize with Devon Gales. Only for a moment, though, yet this experience has opened my eyes, because this time, cheating isn’t possible. I can’t merely imagine what it might feel like to have no control or use of one of my arms; it really is useless at the moment.

I can’t use my hand today. But for me, this is only temporary.

uga_livebulldogThe courage and determination of this young man has been shown to me in a new light. What I’d like more than anything today, is for everyone who reads this to join me in prayer for a major breakthrough for Mr. Gales that will lead to his full recovery, which will require a miracle in some form or fashion — either a secular miracle in the form of a major medical breakthrough, or divine intervention.

I’m the sort of person with more confidence in God than my fellow man, but beggars can’t be choosers. I’ll take either one, of course,

The body wants to heal itself. Nevertheless, Mr. Gales still needs our love and support. The Creator of this body listens to prayer. When two or three join together in sincere prayer…you get the idea.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Chihuly at Atlanta Botanical Gardens

Blue_treeSometimes I can feel like a complete idiot…like, for example, yesterday. The occasion was my first visit to the Atlanta Botanical Gardens. After nearly thirty years of living in this city, as many times as we’ve visited Stone Mountain, the Atlanta Zoo, Turner Field, even tourist “attractions” like the World of Coca-Cola and Underground Atlanta, I finally visited to the Atlanta Botanical Garden.

What on earth took me so long? This has to be the best-kept secret in the city. And the really sad thing was, I knew the Garden existed years ago, when Neil Young mentioned touring it during a concert at Chastain Park, piquing my curiosity when he claimed the catwalk was haunted.Yellow_Ball

“What’s up with that?” Neil asked the crowd. Sorry, Mr. Young, but I forgot to ask somebody last night, so I still couldn’t tell you.

But his question did make me curious.

Yet it took my wife expressing keen interest in a special exhibit of glass blown pieces by world-renowned artist Dale Chihuly to get me to visit, and now I sincerely regret all the other opportunities I’ve missed over the years.

The Atlanta Botanical Garden is breathtaking to visit, and during the Chihuly exhibit (which ends October 30th) is nothing short of spectacular, especially at night. We arrived early enough for the “night” session to enjoy the gardens in daylight…












but at night, the Garden becomes magical. The Chihuly exhibit will remain until October 30th. If you miss it, don’t blame me.

To me, the bottom left photo looks like something right out of Lord of the Rings.

Miss this exhibit and it will be your loss, not mine.

Only thanks to my wife.



Tom Tozer reviews Bart Ehrman’s book Jesus Before the Gospels, Part 4

Tom Tozer, as he hopes the world will see him

Tom Tozer, as he hopes the world will see him

[This is the final installment of a four-part series of articles written by Tom Tozer that reviews Bart Ehrman’s book Jesus Before the Gospels.]

See also:

Tom’s review, Part 1

Tom’s review, Part 2

Tom’s review, Part 3

And now, here is Part 4.

Chapter 7: The Kaleidoscopic Memories of Jesus: John, Thomas and a Range of Others.

Ehrman starts out Chapter 7 by asserting that Mark was “a collective memory” and says that now we’re going to talk about the “other collective memories.” However, he hasn’t demonstrated that Mark is anything less than the account of an eyewitness. He doesn’t believe it is, but he hasn’t established that. So this is not a promising start.

He asserts that the Gospel of John – or “the memories contained” in it – “differ radically from Mark.” On the surface, there is something to this. John is elaborately theological. Mark is more like a police report. If John is a Persian rug, Mark is a grocery list. And yet, at the core of these two Gospels, for 2,000 years, Christians have found the same Jesus. Oddly enough. Now why that might be Ehrman doesn’t bother to ask.

The purpose of this chapter for Ehrman is “to show that there was not one remembered image of Jesus among his early followers, but “a kaleidoscopically varied set of images.”

But how can Ehrman include Marcion, the Gospels of Judas, Thomas and Theodotus as “remembered images of his early followers”? He doesn’t demonstrate that any of these authors had any connection to a witness to Jesus’ life. In fact, that lack of connection is exactly what kept these documents out of the canon. On the other hand, if all Ehrman means is that people who were not witnesses wrote stories about Jesus that differed from stories connected to witnesses, well, so what?

This sleight of hand is what Ehrman set up in Chapter 1. He can call Marcion “a memory,” even though it is not, because he set up the classes of “episodic” and “semantic” memory. Hack off the adjectives and, voila!, Marcion is “a memory of Jesus.”

But it in fact isn’t.

In any event, to contrast Mark from John, Ehrman makes his first mistake in this chapter by asserting that the Gospel of Mark “starts with an account of Jesus’ apocalyptic forerunner.” Not so. Mark begins with Isaiah’s prophecy about “the Lord” and directly points to Jesus as that Lord: “I [God] will send my messenger ahead of you to prepare your way, a voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare the way of the Lord.” This is no less plainly a declaration of Jesus’ divinity than is the poetry of John 1.

Is John more theologically developed? Yes. So what?

On pages 258-59, Ehrman does a nice job of explaining the ramifications of John 1, and how exceedingly high is the Christology of the Church even before the end of the first century. I disagree that this is “more exalted” than Mark 1, but it is definitely more developed. Unfortunately for Ehrman, this early high Christology conflicts with other claims he makes in this chapter.

In distinguishing John and Mark, Ehrman notes that Jesus is generally more vocal about his identity in John than in the synoptics. It is not the case, though, that Jesus never talks about his identity in the synoptics. See Matt 11:25-28 for instance. However, Ehrman really misses the mark when he claims that “unlike the other Gospels, [in John] Jesus is portrayed as a divine being who has become human.” p. 264.

Really? As we saw, in Mark 1, Mark gives Jesus the divine name “Lord” right out of the chute. In Mark 2, Jesus is asked “who can forgive sins but God,” and replies, in essence, “I can.” In Matthew 11:25-28 Jesus declares his divine identity. And in Luke 2, his birth is accompanied by choirs of angels.

In addition, Paul’s letter to the Philippians, probably predating the Gospels, declares exactly that:

Christ Jesus who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!

This is exceedingly high Christology, preceding the Gospel of John. Clearly, Christians prior to the Gospel of John, understood Jesus as a divine being who became human. I find it difficult to believe that Ehrman is unaware of these passages.

The rest of this chapter is about “other memories.” He addresses Paul, the Gospel of Thomas, Q (really?), the Gospel of Judas, Marcion, and Theodotus.

Paul is an odd one to call out. Paul was not a direct witness of Jesus’ life. Perhaps he didn’t talk much about Jesus’ life because he knew there were such witnesses available to the churches. In any case, Paul doesn’t say much about Jesus’ life other than his death and resurrection. Okay.

Of Q, Ehrman writes that “Q provided Matthew and Luke with many of their sayings of Jesus” and asserts that Q “lacked” the story of the passion and resurrection. It is amazing, since no one has ever seen a copy of Q, that Ehrman knows what was and wasn’t in this imaginary document.

For Judas, Marcion, Theodotus and Thomas, the question has to be, who cares what they say if what we’re looking for is eyewitness accounts? They were rejected because they lacked a connection to the apostles and thus to eyewitnesses. Yet Ehrman tries to use these late texts to foist on his readers the idea that the Church’s belief that Jesus is both divine and human somehow arose as a combination of Marcion and Theodotus. Ehrman claims that – from Marcion – the church took the idea that Jesus was fully divine (though Marcion claimed he was not human) and – from Theodotus – the idea that Jesus was fully human (though Theodotus claimed he was not God).

Ehrman’s assertion is nonsense. The full divinity and humanity of Jesus are stated in the Gospels and in Paul’s letters. The Church’s understanding of the precise meaning of the Gospels and Paul on that point certainly grew over time, but it had nothing to do with Marcion or Theodotus. Those books were rejected, as they are today, as not being connected to a witness.

Note again, nothing in Chapter 7 demonstrates that the Gospels we have are not derived from eyewitness accounts.

Chapter 8: In Conclusion: A Paean to Memory

In Chapter 8, Ehrman attempts to strike a noble pose as “defender of the value of the Christian scriptures,” not for their value in conveying factual information or historical truth, but because they have been influential in human civilization and are, essentially, almost as good as a nice painting. Having, in his mind, conquered the Gospels, he now poses over them, defending their defeated husks against those who would simply discard them on the ash heap of history.

It’s comical. Ehrman hasn’t come anywhere close to achieving what he imagines. The chapter begins with assertions that are essential to his thesis (and his pose), but for which he offered no support in the seven preceding chapters.

For instance, Ehrman asserts: “The Gospels were written decades after Jesus’ death by people who were not eyewitnesses and probably never laid eyes on an eyewitness.” Not demonstrated. They were written decades after Jesus’ death. Sure, that’s likely. But the author of John may have been an eyewitness and maybe Matthew, too.

If Mark is Peter’s scribe, then certainly he laid eyes on an eyewitness, as Luke also says he did. Ehrman just does not demonstrate that the Church’s traditional attribution of authorship is wrong.

Ehrman also complains that the Gospels “are filled with discrepancies and contradictions. They represent different perspectives on what Jesus said and did.” Well, yes. As witness testimony often is. Indeed, the useful parts of Ehrman’s book show exactly how eyewitness testimony can be tainted by “filler” and give rise to discrepancies for other reasons. But this is unremarkable. Every street beat cop knows this. This would only be a problem for someone who had, say, spent his youth thinking that the Gospels were literal transcriptions of events, like a video or a court reporter’s transcript.

Ehrman concludes with the utterly trivial declaration that “we have to apply rigorous historical criteria to these sources to reconstruct historical realities from later distorted memories.” He really didn’t need to go this far to get here. Of course we should apply rigorous analysis to the Gospels in viewing them as historical documents.

And even if they are eyewitness accounts, we would be justified in thinking that some parts of the memories involved may have been distorted by the experiences, life, and perspective of the witness. But this is not what Ehrman is suggesting in the book or in this chapter. By “distorted memories” Ehrman means something he has not shown, namely that the Gospels were written by non-witnesses based on utterly unreliable telephone-game-relayed stories, by and in communities that then further massaged the stories to assuage their own difficulties. He hasn’t shown this.

This is probably the tenth time I’ve said this. If the Gospels are sourced in eyewitness accounts, stories that come directly from eyewitnesses – something which Ehrman has not in the least shown not to be the case – then very little of what he says in this book is of any relevance to his topic.


Tom Tozer reviews Bart Ehrman’s book Jesus Before the Gospels, Part 3

 zEW3q[This is the third installment of a four-part series of articles written by Tom Tozer that reviews Bart Ehrman’s book Jesus Before the Gospels.]

See also:

Tom’s review, Part 1

Tom’s review, Part 2

Chapter 5 is called “Distorted Memories and the Life of Jesus.” There is something strange about the story Ehrman begins with, about a man with a remarkable memory. He says a Doctor Luria studied a man “named S, to protect his privacy.” S could memorize long lists of data effortlessly, and even recall lists memorized years before that he had not thought about in all that time, backwards or forwards, again without effort. But, Ehrman says, this ability was detrimental to S’s life and he could never hold a job, even when he toured as a professional mnemonist (memory freak). See any- thing odd there? Why did Luria need to protect the identity of someone who toured the country highlighting his abilities? It’s odd that Ehrman doesn’t ask this question. It makes me wonder if S is a fiction?

Anyway…..Ehrman spends most of this chapter making the case that oral cultures (which he has so far failed to established is what the first century Jewish or surrounding Greek and Roman cultures were) did not have better information strategies for oral material than literate cultures do. This is aimed at, again, showing that when person A tells person B a story, it morphs a little, and then B tells C, with more morphing, and C tells D, etc etc etc. And again, this is irrelevant if the Gospels derive from eyewitnesses.

Some of this is interesting anyway. There was a study of oral performances, and although the artists and audiences claimed the performances were “the same,” data showed there were huge changes in the length and substance of the stories. Ehrman postulates that oral cultures didn’t view sameness as we do, i.e., verbatim the same, but as “the same basic thing.” Interesting. But as he admits, the Gospels were not oral performances.

But Ehrman tells this story so he can get to this: “As Lord [the study author] himself notes, the kinds of epic tradition that are recorded are quite different from ‘when A tells B what happened, and B tells C and so on with all the natural errors and exaggeration and distortion.’ It is obviously the latter sort of tradition we are interested in when dealing with stories and saying of Jesus.”

That is so ridiculously presumptuous it made me laugh out loud. “Obviously” we should be interested in this thing that has failed to show has any relevance to the Gospels. Good grief!

Next Ehrman describes the narrative tradition of oral cultures. Now, keep in mind, he hasn’t yet demonstrated that Jewish culture or the Greeks or Romans were oral cultures. I doubt he can. All he’s shown is that he assumes the early Christian community was illiterate because the main twelve disciples were from Galilee. That doesn’t seem like enough, but anyway, this culture involved “pro- to-testimony of an observer – chain of transmission [A to B to C etc] – final informant – recorder and earliest written record.” Ehrman asserts “this is exactly what happened with the traditions about Jesus as passed down from eyewitnesses to authors of our earliest written accounts.”

Ehrman’s assertions are baseless. Jewish, Greek and Roman culture was not exclusively oral, and he hasn’t demonstrated otherwise. Nor is there evidence (how could there be written evidence?) that there was a long chain of oral transmission from original witnesses to the authors of the Gospels. That is speculation. And there is evidence contrary to both of his assertions. There is evidence that there were many literate early Christians, and evidence that the Gospels record eyewitness accounts. He doesn’t deal with any of this.

The remainder of the chapter is Ehrman telling more just-so stories about how Jesus’ teachings “must have been” changed, and why, and this or that agenda, etc, but really he was just an apocalyptic preacher who wanted to be the king.

Ehrman bases this specious garbage on the claim that, the early Gospels (assuming we know the order) are about the kingdom of God coming on earth, but that in the later Gospels, namely John, it was clear by then that Jesus wasn’t coming back right away, so they changed the message to “the kingdom is something you’ll get after you die.”

Ehrman’ s claim is nonsense. Paul’s letters are filled with references to the afterlife and attaining the kingdom then. And even Ehrman admits that Paul’s letters probably predated the Gospels. See Romans 5:21, 6:22-23, Galatians 6:8, Titus 1, etc. The message didn’t change the way Ehrman claims.

Chapter 6: Collective Memory: Our Earliest Gospel of Mark.

I have to wonder after reading this chapter why Ehrman is taken seriously by anyone but his most fervent fans. At the outset, Ehrman confesses that until 1988 he was unaware that there was anoth- er, reasoned side to the American Civil War. Ehrman was born in 1955. That means that until he was 33 years old, he had no idea that the South understood the Civil War as an issue of State’s rights and local sovereignty. Think about that. This is the guy who wants to be your guide into history. And that’s not the only thing that makes me wonder.

The Civil War issue is Ehrman’s way of backing into the assertion that groups of people share common stories about the past, some of which may or may not be accurate. This bridges to the “collective memories” of early Christian communities. And again, those collective memories are of no relevance whatever if the Gospels are derived from eyewitnesses, which he still has not disproven.

This of course leads us to another groundbreaking, breakthrough work from the 1920s, a book titled “On Collective Memory” by Halbwach. Ehrman uses Halbwach to assert that we recall the past be- cause it is relevant to the present. This is simply nonsense. There are history departments at colleges in every city, town, state and country on this earth, studying every aspect of every era of the human past. All of it is being “recalled” somewhere. To be as generous as possible to Ehrman, perhaps he means that collective polities attempt, at the popular level anyway, to construct historical stories that serve their present interests, although the attempts may be as imperfect as is their understanding of their actual interests.

At least that might explain why Lincoln is recalled in such and such a way today that he wasn’t in the past, or why, as will be discussed, Israel has massaged the story of Masada into the tale of an heroic, surrounded and courageous people. But these are popular level semantic “memories.” And there are alternative views of these stories available in those same polities. In fact, we know the Masada story is propaganda. The Israelis know it too. They don’t actually “remember” Masada the way the propagandists want them to. They simply make use of the symbol. But to put the matter this way makes mincemeat of Ehrman’s assertion that groups actually change their memories of the past in order to deal with the present.

If you don’t know the story, Masada was a last ditch hide out for a group of Jewish rebels who fled there after Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 AD. These were not nice people. They assassinated fellow Jews who cooperated with the Romans. They raided Jewish villages to gain supplies. They attacked and killed Roman soldiers. The Romans hunted them down to Masada, a hilltop fortress in the desert. Because the only way up was a narrow path easily defended, the Romans instead built an earthen mound all the way to the top. But when they got to the top, they found that the Jewish rebels had all killed themselves, soldiers killing women and children, then each other, and then the few survivors committing suicide. The nascent Jewish state took on this story as an heroic story of national will, turning the tale into one of courageous resistance to oppressive outside forces. How- ever, within a single generation an Israeli historian wrote about the actual story of the protagonists as assassins and of the mass suicide.

Ehrman says this shows that groups shape their recollection of the past to fit their present needs. Therefore, “memory historians” can “show how the past is being remembered and for what reasons.” But it doesn’t. What it shows is that national propagandists will try to reconstruct the past to serve national interests, but that the actual history remains, and most informed Israelis are perfectly aware of the facts of Masada. They may choose to embrace it as a symbol of resistance, but their memory has not been changed, nor have the actual facts.

This leads us to Mark, which Ehrman says is the Gospel of “Jesus as the Messiah that no one understood.” He actually has a nice little essay on the first line of the Gospel – The Good News of the Anointed One – and how completely upside down the story was from what the world actually expected would be either good news, or the anointed one. But the rest of it is either sheer speculation or utter malarkey.

Ehrman writes that Mark “was narrating a memory of the Christian community in which he lived.” Not a shred of evidence is offered for this. He doesn’t say who the author was or what community it is, just for starters. Then there is a long discussion of how Mark presents Jesus as showing that we will suffer now, but later be rewarded if we keep to his message. Doesn’t this directly contradict what he said earlier about how the “pie-in-the-sky” message came in the later Gospels?

“We remember the past because it is relevant to our present, and what we are experiencing in the present radically affects how we remember the past,” says Ehrman.

And now for the punchline: “It is unfortunate that we don’t have any other information about Mark’s community and its experiences.” Other than what? He hasn’t presented a shred of evidence!

Does this utter lack of evidence cause Ehrman even a short pause in his “exposition” about what the Gospel of Mark means, how the memories in it were “radically affected” by the experiences of Mark’s community – of which he knows nothing?

Not for a second. Knowing nothing about the community, but having concocted a meaning that now needs an experience to explain this concocted meaning, Ehrman concludes the chapter by saying that “This appears to be a community that is suffering hardship.”

Well it would be, wouldn’t it, since he has:

  1. made up a rule that communities falsify the past because of their present experiences
  2. assumed that Mark was written for some community somewhere, and
  3. asserted that Mark is about how to get by when you’re suffering hardship.

Who, really, takes Ehrman’s popular level books seriously?

Next: Tom’s review, Part 4.

Tom Tozer reviews Bart Ehrman’s book Jesus Before the Gospels, Part 1

Tom Tozer

Tom Tozer

Author biography: Tom Tozer is a real estate attorney based in the Chicago area. He received his law degree from from Indiana University-Bloomington. His undergraduate and master’s degrees were issued by the University of Chicago. Tom and his wife Lori and have three daughters.

Publisher’s Note: Occasionally I am given the opportunity to publish work that I cannot take credit for writing myself. Tom Tozer has produced an outstanding, very thorough review of Bart Ehrman’s book Jesus Before the Gospels and graciously agreed to allow his efforts to be published here as well.

From this point forward, the words you will be reading are Tom’s, not mine.

This is his review…many thanks, Tom!

One thing should be made clear first. Christians who disagree with Ehrman should embrace – not reject – historical analysis of the faith’s texts. Understanding the history of the texts is critical to understanding them. Even more, contrary to Ehrman’s various claims, Cambridge historian Richard Bauckham and others before him have shown that there is plenty of reason to believe what the Church has long said about the historical sources of the Gospels and their authorship. At the end of the day, the historical analysis allows one to believe as the Church teaches on this issue. Another person may, based on their view of the evidence, disbelieve that teaching and instead indulge in speculation about other possibilities. This result shouldn’t be any source of discomfort to Christians examining the issue.

But the bottom line is, whatever the evidence is about who authored the Gospels and whether they contain eyewitness testimony, for Christians the ultimate source of the information contained therein is the Holy Spirit. As Jesus promised “the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.” John 14:26.

Based on this, Christians can be assured that the Gospels “firmly, faithfully, and without error teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the Sacred Scriptures.” But we don’t have to stop there. We also have good historical reasons to believe the Gospels are reliable as ancient sources grounded in eyewitness accounts of the events recorded.

That said, here is my review.

Bart Ehrman

Bart Ehrman

Introduction – Ehrman’s Introduction to the book is odd. The introduction notes that Lincoln and Columbus are remembered today differently than they were remembered then. Lincoln was hated by many in his time, yet now is universally acclaimed; Columbus 100 years ago was a hero, and now is reviled by many as a tool of oppression. Which is true, but that has nothing to do with the issue he’s talking about in this book, which is the memory involved in the Gospels. If those documents are early and involve witness accounts, then that’s what those documents are.

Just like a record of a Lincoln-Douglas debate is a record of a witness account of that event, it’s the documented memory we’re talking about. Ehrman says at one point, “my ultimate point is not directly related to Lincoln or Columbus.”

Well, it’s not actually directly related to the Gospels either. Oddly enough, too, he talks about form criticism, and says “that is, however, what this book is about” (p. 13) after decrying the lack of popular level books about form criticism. Yet on the “Unbelievable” radio program, Ehrman told Bauckham the his book wasn’t about form criticism.

Chapter 1 – Ehrman’s fundamental theme in the book is that “we do not have direct access to what Jesus said, did and experienced but only to later stories told about him.” (page 14)

But he never establishes this assertion. And unless he can prove conclusively that the Gospels are not sourced in eyewitness accounts this entire book fails. I think the Gospels are sourced in eyewitness accounts, and that Bauckham makes a solid case for that in Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. But Ehrman is going to have to prove the opposite.

Rather than do that, instead he immediately fabricates a scenario where eyewitnesses told someone, who then told someone else, and so on, and then somewhere down the line a Gospel writer hears the story 20th hand or worse. In Chapter 1, Ehrman never considers the possibility that the Gospel writers could have spoken directly to the eyewitnesses and cut out all the middlemen.

The chapter does have a nice little introduction to memory and different ways of classifying it in different categories. Ehrman seems to be under the impression that by classifying something you have actually described its essence.

You haven’t. You’ve pared away something to fit it into your classification.

In any case, the discussion of semantic and episodic memory is handy. Episodic memory is memory of something you experienced.

Semantic memory is a memory of something you have learned.

Ehrman gets himself into a bit of a fix when he describes Reza Aslan’s book Zealot (in which Jesus was portrayed as an anti-Roman revolutionary) as a “memory” of Jesus. “Aslan was not the first to remember Jesus in this way,” he says.

Ehrman can only use the word “remember” here because he has snuck it in through the semantic memory door.  However, he’s mixing up his categories here.

Semantic memory isn’t really memory. It’s learning. Your memory of what you learned, however, is episodic memory because the learning was your experience. The content of what you learned is not an episodic memory of the thing represented by the content.

For instance, If I learn that Abraham Lincoln was President of the US, I don’t have an actual memory of Abraham Lincoln’s Presidency.

I have a memory of the information I learned. So when Ehrman says people who read Aslan’s book will “remember” Jesus this way, he’s wrong. They will not “remember Jesus” at all. What they will remember is the (false) information they obtained from Aslan’s book.

Thus, contrary to Ehrman’s case, Bill Reilly’s and Aslan’s books are not “memories of Jesus.” They are “memories” of badly mistaken misinterpretations of historical evidence they learned about Jesus.

These are not “authors recalling who Jesus was.” They are not episodically recalling Jesus, but only information about him, well or badly. This semantic trick of calling both episodic and semantic memories of something “a memory of the thing” when they are not is a critical misstep in Ehrman’s later analysis.

For Ehrman, this is all to get us to this point: “As far back as we have recorded memories of Jesus, we have widely disparate accounts of his words and deeds.”

He can only say this because he wants to include as “recorded memories of Jesus” books that the Church long ago rejected as in fact not containing episodic memories of Jesus. But if we look at the canonical Gospels, we don’t have “widely disparate accounts” of Jesus. The Jesus of the four Gospels is an exceedingly consistent character, despite the differences between them.

As if to prove my point, Ehrman then spends several pages talking – not about the Gospels – but about portrayals of Peter, Judas and Pilate in late apocryphal books which were rejected from the canon. These, he says, are “early Christian memories” of Jesus. But they aren’t. They were rejected on exactly that basis – they were not sourced in testimony from apostolic, that is, witness sources. Ehrman insists otherwise because he is intentionally trying to distort the meaning of “remembering” to help him cast doubt on the actual memories contained in the Gospels.

Chapter 2 of Ehrman’s “Jesus Before the Gospels” begins, egregiously enough, with these words: “When memory researchers speak about ‘distorted’ memories they do not necessarily mean anything negative by it. They are simply referring to memories of things that did not really happen. Most, probably all, of the memories of Jesus discussed in the previous chapter are distorted in that sense. People brought to mind words and deeds of Jesus that the historical Jesus did not actually say and do.”

Which “memories” of Jesus is he talking about here?

The “memories” that are not actually memories of Jesus (not episodic), but memories of learned information? The apocryphal books? Ehrman goes on to talk a bit about the apocryphal stories, but as we’ve established, the Church rejected those as memories. So why does he continue to act like they are? More to the point though, what basis has Ehrman established so far to apply such a statement to the Gospels themselves? Without any real support, he has simply lumped the Gospels in with those books that everyone agrees are not eyewitness memories.

Nice trick. But he hasn’t established anything to show that the Gospels are anything other than eye- witness accounts written in living memory of the events. If they are, all his issues with memory in the prior chapter and introduction are irrelevant.

Next Ehrman discusses a seventeenth century writer named Reimarus. I honestly have no idea why. Reimarus was not an eyewitness. He reviewed the Gospels and decided that Jesus never intended to be the savior of the world, but was just a firebrand revolutionary who wanted to be king. Then he was crucified. Then the disciples hatched this great plan that would allow them to continue to reap the rewards of preaching and missionary work. All they had to do was pretend Jesus rose from the dead.

Seriously. That’s Reimarus’ story. Personally I find that less credible than a resurrection. But Reimarus certainly didn’t have any personal memory of Jesus.

Anyway, the next section is about “a major breakthrough” in critical analysis of the Gospels – form criticism. That thing that Ehrman told a radio audience on the “Unbelievable?” show he wasn’t do- ing in his book. Ehrman asserts that form critics began to realize “that the Gospels could not all be eyewitness accounts of the life of Jesus and that there were, in fact, serious discrepancies among them.” The form critics as he describes them seem to have made up criteria for things they cannot possibly know to be true, and reached conclusions based on that speculation. For instance, Ehrman says there is no basis to believe that the disciples memorized his sayings because the Gospels don’t have scenes of Jesus grilling the disciples in memorization drills (Page 69). “Therefore,” Ehrman says, the view that the disciples memorized things “was anachronistic.” That is possibly one of the dumbest things I’ve ever read. Apparently Ehrman thinks the Gospels should have included Jesus’ top tips on memory drills for rabbinical students. Because that is clearly the focus and message of Jesus’ life, how to memorize sayings. Oy.

Ehrman also discusses the theory of a scholar named Bailey of “controlled” oral tradition. The basic idea is that Bailey attended haflat samar, local gatherings where stories were told. The tellers were given some freedom in the telling, but important facts and details were carefully policed by the community, and the tellers shamed if they misstated something. In any case, whether or not this was a widespread thing is unimportant, again, if the Gospels are in fact sourced in eyewitness accounts. The rest of the chapter continues about various “must have beens” imaginings of how the stories about Jesus spread. Once again, if the point of this is the Gospels, then it is irrelevant how some stories spread if the Gospels are sourced in eyewitness accounts. Why? Because if stories were spread as Ehrman imagines, then if they accurately portray an eyewitness account they are included in the Gospels. If they do not, then they are not included. Simply put, we do not need to worry about the accuracy of stories that are NOT in the Gospels when deciding about the accuracy of the Gospels.

Next: Part 2 of Tom’s review.

Tom Tozer reviews Bart Ehrman’s book Jesus Before the Gospels, Part 2


[This is the second installment of a four-part series of articles written by Tom Tozer that reviews Bart Ehrman’s book Jesus Before the Gospels.]

See also:

Tom’s review, Part 1

Chapter 3 is about eyewitness testimony, and it’s good that we’re finally going to get to that. I couldn’t resist a sneak peek though. In the first couple of pages Ehrman tells the story of a staged event to test eyewitness accuracy. A teacher was giving a lecture when two students stood up and started to argue, the teacher intervened, and a gun went off. Then the teacher explained it was all for show. Over the next few weeks, they had people write down what happened. There were errors. (So why the shock about discrepancies in the Gospels?)

It’s the von Liszt experiment which you can look up. I didn’t find a description of what the people got right and what they got wrong, but I bet they all correctly described the basics, a fight, intervention, and a gunshot. Now why would that be and what kind of event in the Gospels might resemble that?

Chapter 3 begins with the von Liszt experiment which I already mentioned. It doesn’t get much better. Ehrman mentions some other “memory studies,” although I’m not entirely sure that’s what they amount to. One, for instance, involved a plane crash into a building in the 1990s, before phone video and other ubiquitous handheld video was available. There was no film of the crash. Nevertheless, weeks after the crash, someone asked hundreds of people whether they had seen video of the plane crashing into the building. A significant percentage said yes. Ehrman thinks this is a big deal, but I fail to see how. No one doubts that the plane crashed into the building. The only issue this might expose is whether people who claim to witness an event actually were direct witnesses. However, there is nothing here to suggest they were inventing events.

Next he discussed something about alien abductions, which Ehrman claims involve “many” people. He mentions the number 100. That doesn’t sound like many in a nation of 300 million. That “study” does seem to go more directly to the issue of eyewitness credibility, and it is most interesting for the fact that no such events were reported prior to movies and television shows about aliens. In other words, the “memories” had to be socially plausible before they started occurring. People didn’t invent stories of experiencing aliens until the existence of aliens had been suggested to them. That’s pretty interesting. But I think it actually cuts the other way for Ehrman’s thesis. The question, as applied to Jesus, is this: Were resurrections of crucified Messiahs ever socially acceptable? Was this a widespread idea that would have created the suggestion in the disciples, like TV shows created the suggestion in the abductees? For this alien abduction study to tell us much about Jesus, Ehrman would have to offer evidence that resurrected-Messiah stories were widespread prior to Jesus’ time so as to create the suggestion in the apostles. Of course, he doesn’t offer such evidence.

Ehrman only glancingly deals with Bauckham’s ‘Jesus and the Eyewitnesses’. He really deals with none of Bauckham’s research, but just asks a lot of “oh really?” questions, as if those were responses. What “response” he does give is utter speculation stated as though it were known fact- who the Gospel writers were (not Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, clearly!), what their sources were (not eyewitnesses! No sir!), none of which Ehrman can possibly know. In fact, he concedes, on page 103, that “some of the basics about Jesus” were well known, especially the crucifixion and resurrection, in the early church as made plain by Paul’s letters. Seems to me those are the most important facts of all about Jesus. The lack of stories about Jesus’ life in Paul’s letters is a non-event, I think. Paul did not need to retell stories that were well known, and the purpose of his letters were more along the lines of encouraging church leaders and church governance. He was not writing homilies about one of Jesus’ parables or healings.

Several items in the chapter stand out.

First, Ehrman attacks Papias’ credibility. Papias states that Mark wrote Mark as the memoirs of Peter. Ehrman cannot allow this to stand because it destroys his entire hypothesis. If the Gospels record eyewitness accounts, 95 percent of Ehrman’s book is irrelevant. But the way he attacks Papias is utterly ineffective. Ehrman notes that Papias records a saying of Jesus that is not recorded in any of the Gospels. It goes something like this: The days will come when a vine has ten thousand boughs, and each bough ten thousand branches, and each branch ten thousand clusters, and each cluster ten thousand grapes, and each grape will cry out to bless the Lord. Ehrman seems bemused by this. “Really? Jesus taught that?” he asks mockingly.

Uh, yeah, I don’t know why Jesus would not have taught that. That parable – which I’d never heard before – works perfectly with the parable of the mustard seed becoming the bush that takes over the field. Jesus could have meant it as a description of the church in 100, 1000 or 2000 years later and he was using it to encourage the disciples. Who knows? But there’s nothing weird about the parable at all. It may well be genuine. It is not inconsistent with anything Jesus said. But Ehrman thinks it “sounds weird” and so must be false, I guess.

The second thing that stands out is how Ehrman picks a Lukan introduction to make it seem as though Luke did no personal investigation of the facts. There are translations of Luke 1:1-3 which state that Luke investigated, and some which state that he “followed” the facts. The word used in Luke 1:3 is parēkolouthēkoti, a combination of “para” which one Biblehub’s lexicon defines as “be- side, or in the presence of” and akoloutheó, defined as “accompany, attend or follow.”

Seems to me “investigation” is closer than mere “following” and the word definitely conveys personal presence of the author in the following.” But Ehrman can’t have Luke investigating anything, and so, unsurprisingly, chooses the latter translation. It isn’t even tricky.

Next, Ehrman’s response to the fact that all four Gospels had names when Irenaeus was writing (and another list, from the same time, found hundreds of miles away) is to fabricate a scenario where someone writes a book for his church from stories they tell there, and then that gets passed around, and so on. Ehrman writes, “there was no name attached to the books” [what books?] “The author was writing an account based on what he heard.” [what author? What did he hear? From whom?] “Within months most of the people reading the book would not know its author” and “no one cared who the author was” and “there was no discussion of the matter for many many decades.” Etc. etc. etc. Evidence?

The most egregious part of the chapter is in the last four pages. Ehrman backs his way into agreeing that names of the Gospel authors and their association with each book makes sense. (pp. 125- 128).

But he does so by assuming that later name-suppliers combed through the books for clues about what names to invent for them. For instance, he admits it makes sense that Matthew is called Matthew because it contains the call of Matthew, and seems the “most Jewish” of the books. He claims that the Gospel of John had to be named John because, well, it couldn’t be named for Peter because Peter is named in it alongside the beloved disciple who claims authorship at the end.

He says Luke makes sense for Luke because it appears to be written by Paul’s traveling companion, who appears to be a gentile, and since Paul mentions his companion the gentile Luke in a letter, that name fits. Finally, Ehrman says Mark makes sense to be named for Mark, because since the time of Papias everyone thought Mark wrote down Peter’s memoirs, and they couldn’t name it Peter because there already was an heretical Gospel of Peter, so they adopted the name Mark for it since Mark was already associated with Peter through Papias.

Hilariously enough, all of that actually explains exactly why the traditional authorship makes sense. But you can either assume the names make sense because of the historical data, or you can assume that a cabal of later editors conspired in a fascinatingly byzantine fashion to make up names because it matched that historical data. I guess you’ve got to do the latter when you’re Ehrman and you’re trying to sell books. But the former seems simpler.

Chapter 4 is titled “Distorted memories and the death of Jesus.” Some of this chapter just makes no sense. Ehrman talks about people who can memorize hundreds of cards or numbers, and then says “we all forget stuff.” Another, someone named Ebbinghaus, used himself as the sole subject, and made up hundreds of nonsense syllables and memorized them. He showed that he – and by extrapolation others I guess – tended to do most of his forgetting right away, with memory stabilizing at about six months.

In other words, what you remember at about six months after an event stays stable. Next is another “breakthrough” from 1932 by Bartlett, who shows that memories are stored in multiple places in the brain, and then reconstructed when we recall an event. If we do not have data for part of a memory, the brain will fill in the missing data with “typical” data. It seems to me that Bartlett helps explain why people have slightly different recall of events and there can be discrepancies between eyewitness accounts.

Person A was not paying attention to the color of the table cloth, so his mind filled in “white” for that detail. Person B noticed the table cloth was red, but wasn’t drinking the wine that night and so has no data for that and recalls only water on the table. This seems to support, not undermine, the nature of the Gospels as eyewitness accounts.

From Bartlett, Ehrman floats over to the telephone game. Basically, A was a witness. He tells B. B forgets some of what A said and fills in with “typical” data. He tells C. C forgets some, fills in, and tells D, and so on. But, yet again, all of this is irrelevant if A talks to the person taking down the events and writing, oh, say, a Gospel. Then the only filling in is whatever A’s mind did. So really we’re back to the original question: were the Gospels sourced in eyewitness accounts? If so, all of this telephone game stuff is irrelevant.

Next Ehrman talks about “flashbulb” memories. These are memories of unusual or important events that leave a vivid impression. In one study, 44 students were asked to take a quiz multiple times after the Challenger space shuttle explosion in 1986. They misremembered where they were when they heard about it, who they heard from, and some didn’t recall taking the prior quizzes. What’s weird about drawing conclusions from this is that none of the things they misremembered was the actual unusual event at issue.

Now if some of them thought the Challenger did not explode, or that something else had happened, that would seem to undermine the “flashbulb” memory idea. But none of them failed to remember the actual unusual event. Similarly (just spit-balling this) we might find that someone vividly remembered seeing a resurrected man, but didn’t recall everyone who went with them to a tomb, say.

Next Ehrman talks about “gist memories,” which he agrees can be reliable. However, I can see now why someone from his fundamentalist background might have been deeply disturbed by finding out that the Gospels are not word-for-word transcripts of events, but instead are human documents about human events. But even if the Gospels can only be said (and I don’t think this is correct, but arguendo) only to record “the gist” of Jesus’ life, what is “the gist” of a resurrected man? Seems to me, if that gist is correct, the details are somewhat less important.

Anyway, to attack gist memories, Ehrman misrepresents a paper by Neisser about John Dean, a Watergate witness who testified at length before Congress about the Nixon Watergate matter. Ehrman asserts that Dean’s failed memory for specific conversations shows how poor gist memory can be. Neisser, at the conclusion of his paper, says the opposite. “[Dean] is not remembering the “gist” of a single episode by itself, but the common characteristics of a whole series of events. … Nixon hoped that the transcripts would undermine Dean’s testimony by showing that it had been wrong. They did not have this effect because he was wrong only in terms of isolated episodes.

Episodes are not the only kinds of facts. Except where the significance of his own role was at stake, Dean was right about what had really been going on at the White House. What he later told the Senators was fairly close to the mark: his mind was not a tape recorder, but it certainly received the message that was being given.”

Likewise, disciples who had been with Jesus for an extended period may not have been tape recorders, but they could “certainly [have] received the message that was being given.”

Having misrepresented Neisser, Ehrman now describes his “method” for assessing the evidence about the trial and death of Jesus. It is this:

  1. 1) If there are contradictions between two stories, one must be false.
  2. 2) If an account includes events “that are simply implausible” or “utterly beyond what seems likely” then it must be a distorted memory (i.e.false).

Neither of those propositions is true. As we’ve seen from this very book, people fill in details about things they were not paying attention to, based on “typical” events. That does not mean that the overall story they tell is false, but only that some of the details may be incorrect. Nor is it the case that nothing “implausible” ever happens. What in the world would anyone ever write about or tell stories about if nothing “beyond what seems likely” ever happened? The implausibility of an event can’t, by that fact alone, demonstrate that the event did not occur.

Given this, let’s look briefly at one aspect of the death of Jesus that Ehrman examines. He first looks at the trial before Pilate. He sets out a long list of things the Gospels agree about, which is helpful, and he seems, I think, to agree that these things probably took place. He has problems with the accounts though, because:

  1. Matthew adds facts that Mark did not have (which doesn’t contradict anything nor seem unusual if Matthew also had other eyewitness sources);
  2. Luke adds the detail of sending Jesus to Herod (which is not a contradiction and is not implausible);
  3. John places the trial on the morning of the Passover meal.

Ehrman has a valid point about the Gospel of John. There are several “timing” issues with John, that seem to a lot of people – I’ve read this elsewhere – to focus on showing Jesus as the slain lamb of the Passover. So John’s placement of the trial on the morning of the meal, when the sacrifice and meal would be made later, makes sense from a story telling point of view.

Recalling that ancient historians were more concerned with conveying the character of their subjects than with detailing minutia, this doesn’t seem to undermine the truth of the matter that Jesus was tried before Pilate, that Pilate found him innocent, but allowed his crucifixion anyway, and that Jesus died on the cross. Those are the events that matter. Ehrman then uses his “method” to examine the cleansing of the temple, the entry into Jerusalem, the tearing of the curtain to the holy of holies, and such, none of which seems very interesting.

Next: Tom’s review, Part 3

The philosophical argument for God

southernprose_cover_CAFGThis post represents the other bookend to the effort I made to illustrate why waxing philosophical on the question as to whether or not God exists is an extraordinarily tricky problem to tackle, no matter what your personal opinions (atheist, theist, agnostic) on the subject might be. Especially simplistic arguments fail to reveal the true complexity of the argument as a whole.

To illustrate the gravity and true scope of the problem, I recruited the smartest person I know, an honest-to-God scientist recognized worldwide in his specific field of expertise, for an unbiased and unvarnished evaluation of the science and logic used in my article, focused on my own argument for God in particular to expose any and every perceived weakness in my reasoning.

What follows next is primarily my friend’s analytical feedback and constructive criticisms of my argument through our subsequent correspondence, which I’ve converted into an article to further elaborate on what we started…

No matter what you actually believe, your worldview will be at least partially based on faith, whether you are a scientist, an atheist, or someone like me.

Even if that faith is limited to yourself — you’ve put faith in something, but not in nothing.

The scientist places his or her faith in the scientific method and personal skill set to discern between illusion and reality. The atheist trusts intellect and reason will ultimately lead to evidence that validates their lack of belief in a supernatural God, while the theist has faith that his or her intellect is surpassed by something far greater.

In my opinion, no honest person should try to convince someone else that they know for a fact that God exists, or does not exist. It’s virtually impossible to make a comprehensive, rational, and coherent argument. On a scale of belief where zero represents certainty of no God and 100 percent represents the opposite extreme, the expected values should range between less than 1 percent and greater than 99 percent. A “knowledge” claim of either extreme actually has zero epistemic value.

So I solicited help from one of the smartest people I personally know well enough to ask for some advice. My (scientist) friend’s overall reaction to my request for constructive feedback was this:

Well, I think one problem is that science isn’t well suited to to this argument because, ultimately, the scientific method is a *negative* process. You want to believe something. But at best the scientific method can do is say is that belief in a God with some set of characteristics is not disproved. The Atheist faces the same problem. They want to believe there are no gods. Yet at best science can say “the facts indicate that gods with the following characteristics are not supported.” All you can do is say that belief in a God that created the universe with a fixed set of operating rules, and does not appear to interfere with those rules on a widespread, systematic basis, is consistent with the present state of the art of science. Likewise, the Atheist can only say that we see no evidence of Gods of a God who interferes with or directs nature in the operation outside of natural law (eg no supernatural interventions). That state is very unsatisfying to either party. But that’s where we are. And, interestingly, the former is in fact pretty well consistent with Orthodox Christian Theology as taught by the Church Fathers in the first few hundred years of the faith. It’s only later, when Christianity encountered the enlightenment, and the post-Augustinian worldview invaded Christianity, that it went off the rails. But that’s a different discussion.

My professional scientist friend and I seem to be agreeing more than we disagree on the idea that the scientific method does have its limitations as to what knowledge we might obtain by its application.

For example, once upon a time my friend Matthew Botsford was shot in the head, in a random act of violence. In fact, the bullet is still lodged in Matthew’s brain. He was so close to death and had suffered such serious brain trauma that his family was asked to donate his organs. Yet Matthew survived, only because his wife Nancy wouldn’t let go, and what he would call the grace of God.

Matthew sincerely and literally believes that he went to hell when he died and suffered horrific torment until he was literally rescued by God. And I believe him.

It’s a long story, but Matthew did recount most of the gory details in Nancy’s book titled A Day in Hell.

Matthew and Nancy Botsford

Matthew and Nancy Botsford

My point is simply this: Matthew knows that he was shot in the head, and he believes that God rescued him from hell. And I believe that he believes everything he has told me.

The first half of the statement above is a knowledge claim, well supported by scientific evidence. But what we believe happened after he “died” is not. The fact that I believe Matthew is sincere about his conviction that he really did spend time in hell is for the most part, irrelevant. What can we prove?

We cannot apply the scientific method to Matthew’s claims of his experiences in hell — for him, those experiences actually could be empirical observations formed through application of the scientific method but for anyone else, they can only be classified as anecdotal.

We might label Matthew Botsford a liar, selling a story for profit, but we have no evidence on which to base such an accusation. As a published author you’re going to have to trust my judgement on this, but the potential for future book sales is not a strong incentive for one to allow him or herself to be shot in the head, based on the assumption that it might make a good story for a book one day.

We could also assume Matthew Botsford suffered some hideous injury (well documented) that created a vivid hallucination (not documented) as an ugly delusion in his dying brain, horrific images and imagined experiences of torment and suffering in hell, but we’re also making a choice to reject belief due to our personal bias…anyone already convinced that no hell exists will not accept anything as evidence of hell.

Our third option is to give Matthew Botsford the benefit of the doubt and accept the possibility that he might actually be giving a true and accurate description of his experiences after death, to the very best of his ability to do so. And in doing so, we would be opening our minds to the distinct possibility that other personal accounts of similar stories might be true, too, which would require further investigation upon discovery.

Before judging my friend Matthew as a liar or a lunatic, perhaps you should follow my example. Before reaching any final conclusions you should also meet him face-to-face, and look directly into his eyes for any signs of deception while he tells his story.

As far as my attempt to inject myself into the debate between Dr. Alex Malpass and Matt Slick was concerned, my scientist/expert/truly brilliant friend had this to say:

Some quick thoughts FWIW – I think both Malpass and Slick are in gross violation of the “laws” (rules is probably a better term) of applied logic. As a denizen of the gray (and near expert in quantum mechanics), absolutes really bug me. They are very rarely applicable for anything other than highly theoretical, mathematical problems, yet people just *love* to force discussions in to a binary decision structure and argue “logic” because they want the purity of “right” and “wrong”. For example, I’d argue that the “God exists, or doesn’t” dichotomy is a sophomoric straw-man debate. Sure, it’s “true” on some completely theoretical level but it’s a stupid question from a practical standpoint because, as you correctly note, the definition of God is so open ended and fluid that the question becomes unanswerable. I think you go a bit off the rails when trying to argue that the alternative to “God” is “no God” – again, that argument it depends on the definition of “God”. So the other side, “God doesn’t exist” is also a “staw man” argument because it too depends on the definition of “God”. What if you define the Universe itself *as* God – the mathematical, QM rules, etc. Someone who wants an “intelligent” personal God would say that’s not a “God” – but someone else might argue that the laws of physics are in and of themselves intelligent on some level, rather than *evidence* of separate intelligence (definitions again). So the only real debatable question, certainly from a scientific/logic standpoint, is “Does a God with the following characteristics (a,b,c, …) exist?” because then you can provide observations that prove or disprove a,b,c,… In short, you can’t argue, on the basis of science or logic, that “no God’s exist”, only “Does this God (or class of Gods) exist?” which makes a disjunctive syllogism moot. Just skimmed most of the rest, but your list of “scientific claims” are not really “claims” made by the state of the art of accepted science – especially number 2. As I have tried over and over to get across, the “tuning” argument is coming from the string theory/multiverse hypothesis crowd (multiverse depends on string theory), and string theory is circling the toilet with every increase in energy of the LHC. Standard Model extensions and GUT argues that almost all, perhaps all, of the so-called fields collapse into a single mode. So all of the BS about dependencies goes away, as does your argument that “luck” is required. In other words, this Universe might exist because it’s the only one that is possible. [emphasis added] Now, if you want to argue that points to design, have at it. It’s an unanswerable question from a *science* standpoint because it requires being able to see other Universes (which seems to be theoretically impossible under either GUT or string/multiverse), and is therefore not science because there is no way to test the null hypothesis. Therefore a philosophical question. In short, I don’t think it’s a good idea to argue for God on the basis of bad, increasingly disproven science, just because it’s popular, and the “scientists” (they actually aren’t being scientists in this context) are using it to argue for atheism.

To my friend’s assertion (the particular sentence that I emphasized) above I replied,”That (the universe had to exist) is just as much of an assumption as fine tuning, isn’t it? Besides, I thought with spectrograph or some such equipment they could tell the composition of stars, which does seem to support the fine tuned argument, based on what I’ve read. But as we both know, I’m not a whole lot better than a trained parrot when it comes to understanding this stuff…weak gravitational force. Yeah, I can explain that. NOT.”

My spectroscope reference was a rather sloppy one, but I had this quote by cosmologist Chris Impey in mind, which I culled from his book The Living Cosmos:

Apart from hydrogen, everything else is just a trace element. Just how rare? Suppose a deck of cards represented randomly selected atoms in the universe. In one deck of cards, the aces would be helium atoms and the other forty-eight would be hydrogen atoms. You’d need thirty decks of cards before you’d expect to find one carbon atom. In the thirty decks of cards, there’d be a couple of oxygen atoms, too, but all the other cards would be hydrogen or helium. You’d need to search three hundred decks to find a single iron atom…How do we know what the universe is made of? Astronomers use remote sensing by spectroscopy to measure the composition of star stuff. Each element has a unique set of sharp spectral features that acts like a fingerprint, so by identifying that fingerprint in starlight, astronomers can measure contributions of different elements.

But I am woefully unqualified to argue either side in that science debate, multiverse hypotheses and string theories versus GUT. One possible solution would be to put people like Martin Rees and Roger Penrose in the same room with my friend and let them hash out the “best” answer to the origin of the universe as multiverse, string theory, or GUT. Just tell people like me how it all comes out.

Before I used up all of my friend’s time, I wish it had occurred to me to ask how the Grand Unified Theory (GUT) should not more accurately be called the Grand Unified Hypothesis (GUH) because his argument also seems to begin with a rather significant assumption, that the evidence can only lead to one conclusion without resorting to pantheism, by saying the universe had no choice but to exist in the current form it has taken. On the other hand, a man’s got to know his own limitations.

So to my friend I replied, “BTW, thanks very much for the feedback. It’s exactly what I needed. My plan is to say I offered the argument to an impartial moderator who happens to be a scientist (without naming names, of course) to demonstrate the dissent argument against what I’ve put together, after I mull it a while and perhaps change some stuff, too. But most of all, thanks. No one will know our little secret, because I might ask for the same sort of feedback again and I certainly don’t want to betray your confidence.”

In my opinion, if what Impey wrote about the delicate balance of elements distributed within the cosmos is correct (and I suspect it is) then my friend’s GUT is basically saying that the incredibly “fine-tuned” balance we observe in nature exists because natural forces would not allow these cosmological factors to vary even slightly.

Furthermore, if the laws of nature or physics were purely deterministic during the creation of the universe, meaning they could not have varied in the slightest, why does the resulting universe clearly show signs that random chance exists?

If chance did not exist, the outcome of any event would only have one possibility. Accidents would never occur, things would never break, and nothing would ever go wrong. To my pseudo-scientific ears, this sounds like my friend trying to say that if we threw six darts at a dart board, the only possible outcome that could occur would be that all six darts would strike the bullseye, with each of the six darts stuck into the fin of the previous one thrown — as if they had no choice .

On the other hand, involving myself in a disagreement between two highly qualified scientists would be most unwise. Brash claims and bold statements asserted to much smarter people have a tendency to blow up on a person. While I mulled over my dilemma on how to pursue more information from my source, my friend indulged me and solved my problem by continuing to hammer home his point:

Actually, “only one possible” is shorthand for “given the structure of matter and the laws of physics, only one combination of values for the underlying constants is stable”, is it’s not technically the same thing. You still get the philosophical question of how that one value came to be, but then there is no probability involved and is, in fact, finally a true binary situation: is, or is not. Other stars have nothing really to do with it, other than we know pretty well that the behavior of matter and energy “out there” is the same as it is here. Has nothing to do with the fine tuning argument. The fine tuning argument boils down to arguing that in order to get the universe we observe, the various “constants” have to be awfully close to what they are. If, for example, the strong nuclear force were 10% stronger than the electroweak force, nothing would work right. HOWEVER, what if the strong nuclear force and electroweak forces are manifestations of the same thing (eg the Grand Unified Theory)? Then they are the same thing and not “tuned”. There is some evidence for this – just like the weak and electromagnetic forces were “unified”, it is possible the other four forces will also be “unified”. That is on stronger ground than string “theory”.

I’m pretty sure that I understand from where my friend is coming — science definitely has its limits. On the other hand, I must respectfully disagree that with the idea that GUT could solve all the same problems as a god without supernatural intelligence.

Yet I also know that my friend’s specific field of expertise is more closely related to physics than chemistry or biology. And, due to time constraints and a very busy schedule, my friend may not be familiar with this two hour lecture by Dr. James Tour, an expert on chemical synthesis, on the subject of the chemical prerequisites for abiogenesis.

According to Dr. Tour, chemists have absolutely no idea how enzymes developed that allowed for the synthesis of molecules. Among many other interesting things Dr. Tour said was this:

 We have no idea [emphasis added] how the molecules that compose living systems could have been devised such that they would work in concert to fulfill biology’s functions. We have no idea how the basic set of molecules, carbohydrates, nucleic acids, lipids and proteins were made and how they could have coupled in proper sequences, and then transformed into the ordered assemblies until there was the construction of a complex biological system, and eventually to that first cell. Nobody has any idea on how this was done when using our commonly understood mechanisms of chemical science. Those that say that they understand are generally wholly uninformed regarding chemical synthesis.

Now if I didn’t know better, I might have assumed “wholly uninformed regarding chemical synthesis” was a direct reference to me. Yet after listening to Dr. Tour, I can’t see how GUT for the universe could possibly make the origin of life within the universe a foregone conclusion.

No matter how we sincerely we reach for knowledge and proof, at some point, assumptions must be made on faith. Even my “ace-in-the-hole” argument that I alternately refer to as corroborated veridical NDE episodes (or a slight variation) or quantum consciousness, meaning the metaphysical, abstract mind learns and remembers new, accurate information while independent of the physical brain, must assume that the apparent reliability of the new memory validates the anecdotal evidence of the account as well. My friend then elaborated further:

Let me try to put it a different way. If the “extended Standard Model”/GUT is correct (and so far the evidence indicates it is), then there is only one possible configuration of relationships between the fundamental forces because the “constants” (forces) are all related in a fixed way. That part is science. Are there *other* universes? The GUT based theories don’t require them AFAIK (the various string “theories” do mathematically) and even if they did, they would behave (from a physical matter/chemistry standpoint) the same way this one does. BUT, as noted above, even if there are “other” universes, no information can be exchanged between them, so you can’t test that hypothesis, therefore it’s not a scientific question. So, given the present state of modern science, despite all the sound and fury of both the gnu atheists and those like you who want to argue there is scientific support for an intelligent creator trying to use the same (flawed!) reasoning they do, we’re actually in the same place we’ve been for a very long time. The physical state of the universe, and how it works, has no obvious direct evidence of any supernatural interventions since the “big bang”. We can’t speak to probabilities of this universe because its the only one we can look at, and from what we can tell about how it behaves, there is no reason to assume or even speculate there are more than one of them. That leaves both sides with plenty to be uncomfortable about. Yes, the atheist can argue there is no evidence for “sky wizards” and other straw-man deities, but is left with the very uncomfortable fact we have no explanation, and no *way* to apply science, to the ultimate question of first cause. The Theist is also stuck. The “first cause” question is unanswered (and unanswerable) scientifically since we can’t see past the singularity at the start of the big bang, and a universe that has fixed, logical laws governing its operation since. That screams for a supernatural explanation. Yet there is nothing since that event that indicates “divine intervention” – all the rest is explained as a result of natural processes.

At great risk to my pride (after my friend gleefully destroys this retort) I must humbly submit that my Big Picture argument for God, as presented in my book Counterargument for God, seems to survive both GUT and TAG due to what I’ve called the contingent probabilities. These are dependencies that strongly indicate that for life to exist this universe must exist, and that it confirms I’m alive and able to write this sentence, and the reader must be alive in order to read it.

My scientist friend’s closing words also resonated with me:

I don’t care about being “right”. The only thing I care about is being correct. Big difference . . . Facts are what they are. They don’t care what I or anybody else wants. I also try to draw a bright line between what the facts show, and the *conclusions* I draw from those facts. I think that last paragraph about both sides being in bad situations is “fact”, based on science. But you’ll notice that in none of that discussion did I say which “side” I’m on, because as long as it’s consistent with the “facts”, what I believe doesn’t matter. I’m happy to denigrate Theist and Atheist equally if they stray from the science . . .

On that final sentiment, we are absolutely on the same page. It’s more important to seek truth than be “right” or win an argument.

I’m not the least bit upset by my scientist friend’s assessment that Matt Slick’s TAG argument, Alex Malpass’s philosophical rebuttal, and my Big Picture argument all fail to meet a burden of proof.

We must all take calculated risks of faith and make assumptions in the course of seeking answers to our existential questions. These assumptions will naturally conform to our pre-existing personal bias toward theism or atheism.

The atheist will never see evidence of supernatural intelligence, and theists will never accept that this world could exist because there was no other choice, according to some abstract “laws of nature.”  The existence of laws certainly seems to imply the existence of a Lawgiver.

But nothing that approaches proof. And that’s an assumption on my part.


The secret of evolution

Pokemon[WARNING — People who are humor impaired should not read this article, especially if you have a strong aversion to dripping sarcasm.]

Almost a decade ago, I became a professional writer because Richard Dawkins basically said that the theory of evolution had rendered belief in God into delusional thought.

I spent the next several years of my life reading everything I could find in the library on the subject of evolution, looking for a book that might explain the missing secret ingredient that allowed macro evolution to occur. Most biologists have seemed to agree on the belief that evolution from an existing species into a new type of creature requires three things: sexual reproduction, isolation of the gene pool in a small breeding population, and time. But that isn’t really enough to explain the diversity of life on earth, is it?

Let’s look at a few of these alleged factors that allow evolution to occur:

Isolation of a small breeding population — think about the diversity of life in an ocean. We can cast our lines into the water and possibly catch trout, bass, flounder, mackerel, shark…and the list continues for quite a while. How did all of those different species of fish (and don’t forget mammals, etc.) evolve into different types of creatures from a single common ancestor?

If the theory of evolution really is true, humans aren’t just related to monkeys because of sex, isolation of a gene pool, and time. We’re also related to every other living organism on the planet by those same three mechanisms.

Sexual Reproduction — here it gets a little tricky, because sexual reproduction can only be observed in perpetuating existing species. The emergence of a new species cannot be observed due to time constraints…we can observe reproduction, but not production.

New life can be created one of two ways: either two sexually compatible members of the same species mate and produce fertile offspring, or two individuals that are members of closely related but different species (horse and mule, zebra and donkey, etc.) mate and give birth to living but sterile offspring, a biological dead end.

Time — how much time is needed for one species to metamorphose into a new species with a completely different body plan? Was there a rhyme or reason to the reversal of certain dominant and recessive genes that allowed monkeys to evolve into humans?

For nearly a decade, I’ve been asking the same question to anyone who will listen, over and over…what environmental factor, besides sex, isolation, and time, creates a new creature by random chance?

I’ve penned open letters to Jerry Coyne, Francis Collins, and Ken Miller asking the experts on biology what the missing ingredient might be.

Who could have ever guessed that I’d find the answer to my question in a silly game originally (intelligently) designed for children?

While I sit around all day writing books and thinking about what to write next, my wife earns the majority of the income that pays our bills. Recently on a business trip to New York, she downloaded the game Pokemon Go on her cell phone on orders from her boss, so that she might participate in a team building exercise.

My wife has an obsessive-compulsive personality and returned home addicted to walking around trying to catch silly cartoon characters with her cell phone. Initially I went along  the exercise, because we walked more in one month than we had in the previous year — logging an astonishing total distance of 100 kilometers in under 30 days.

The only problem for our walks would occur when a virtual Pokemon character would appear on her cell phone, and she wanted to stop long enough to catch it. More interested in the exercise, I tended to continue walking and found myself frequently leaving her behind.

The solution, naturally, was for me to load the silly game on my phone in order to play along with her. However, while playing I’ve discovered that the game models the real world perhaps better than one might think at first glance.

For example, to make yourself more attractive to Pokemon, you can put out lures or burn incense to draw them near.

All of the elements of evolution theory are there…survival of the fittest? Got it covered. Pokemon gyms are places where these mythical creatures engage in mortal combat. IMG_6738.0

Entropy? Yep, you bet. Pokemon typically “spawn” in the wild, but they only hang around for a limited time before disappearing. Creatures that sort of look like rats or rabbits tend to spawn in the wild like, well, rats or rabbits. Other Pokemon characters are considerably more rare — not easy to find, catch, or hatch.

Pokemon can also be collected in eggs that must be incubated and hatched. Creatures that have already evolved cannot be hatched from eggs, however. Just like evolution in the real world, rules do seem to apply, but no one fully understands them or can even say what those rules are.

Most importantly, the game teaches us how evolution really works — you simply press a button that says “Evolve” and your Pokemon changes into a completely new creature, right before your very eyes.

It’s like a miracle! Of course, in order to successfully evolve a Pokemon requires just a tad more than the simple push of a single button.

First you must collect stardust — the complex chemical compounds that comprise all matter formed from stardust created by the death of a star. Just like the song Woodstock (written by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young) says:

We are stardust, we are golden, we are billion-year-old carbon.

Who could have guess that Pokemon are too, apparently. These cartoon creations require virtual stardust to evolve in their intelligently designed world.

And what was the other special “secret” ingredient that causes evolution of one Pokemon species into a completely different one?

Special Pokemon candy.

Apparently that’s the real secret of evolution.



Waxing philosophical

Dr. Alex Malpass (photo YouTube)

Dr. Alex Malpass
(photo YouTube)

[To shorten this to a somewhat more palatable length, the original post was split in half. Because my intention was to present a solid philosophical argument to a philosopher, I decided to recruit an honest-to-God scientist to “moderate” the discussion and keep all of us honest. It turns out that my scientist friend didn’t really like anybody’s effort to make a coherent argument for God. Our correspondence will be included in the followup post, to be titled “The Philosophical Argument for God.”]

Some questions have easy, straightforward answers:

What is the sum of three plus four? How old are you? What did you have for dinner? Do you like chocolate?

How many roads must a man walk down, before you can call him a man? 

Okay, so maybe that last question wasn’t that easy or straightforward, but it turns out the answer is 42.*

Other questions, for example such as our existential questions, may not have one clear and correct answer to existential questions such as:

Does God exist? What happens when we die? How did this universe originate from nothing? What existed prior to the Big Bang? How was life created from inanimate matter?

However, just because these other questions are extraordinarily more difficult to answer doesn’t mean we shouldn’t even bother to put out any effort looking for the answers. These are some of the most consequential questions we could ever seek to answer, because the truth could change the way we live our lives from day to day.

Philosophy professor Dr. Alex Malpass recently caused a minor sensation on the internet when he tackled the presuppositional Transcendental Argument for God (TAG) championed by Matt Slick, the founder of an organization known as the Christian Apologetics (&) Research Ministry, or CARM. Dr. Malpass is an expert applying logic to thought and writes a blog called UseOfReason.

Om that website Dr. Malpass revealed what he identified as a logical fallacy (a false dichotomy) in Slick’s TAG argument.  Dr. Malpass was then invited to appear on a podcast with Matt Slick and several others, something  called The Bible Thumping Wingnut Show (seriously, that really is the name of the show, which shall be abbreviated hereafter to the acronym BTWNS).

Matt Slick introduced the “laws of logic” into what is known as a disjunctive syllogism in an attempt to put forth an unbeatable argument for the existence of God, paraphrased in the following steps:

  1. God exists, or does not exist.
  2. If God does not exist, we have no explanation for the laws of logic.
  3. Logic exists. Therefore, God exists.

According to Dr. Malpass, Matt Slick has attempted to directly connect the laws of logic to the existence of God, using only logic and reason.

In my (never humble enough) opinion, logic and reason alone could never produce an argument that inspires any degree of confidence in any conclusions drawn — the scientific evidence currently available to us to use for evaluation purposes is much too important to be totally ignored.

Dr. Malpass said that it is perfectly copacetic to state a true (valid) dichotomy such as “God exists, or doesn’t exist.”

This is wonderful information. Boolean (binary) logic truly exists in the real world!

That’s very reassuring to know, because it often proved to be quite useful in the sterile, artificial world of computer programming, where software developers endeavor to simulate the real world as much as possible. A valid dichotomy gives us an opportunity to look for some common ground for a starting point.

Jumping into this debate will probably be a rather sticky proposition…unlike both of these gentlemen, I don’t hold any sort of advanced degree. My formal education ended with a BBA specializing in Management Information Systems from the University of Georgia.

Not to mention nobody asked for my opinion, but that’s never stopped me before.

Mr. Slick’s goal was far too optimistic, and Dr. Malpass’s rebuttal not very ambitious. Dr. Malpass only seeking to refute the argument of Slick on a technical argument, not a superior argument exposing the logic of atheism. Matt Slick sought to prove his own answer to an existential question was indisputably true, which is a most difficult proposition for that type of question.

I can’t conceive of a way to prove that so-called laws of logic could not exist independently of God — what would be the test? Likewise, pointing to a perceived weakness in the argument of Matt Slick does not really articulate a positive case for atheism, the logical alternative to any argument (or Counterargument) for God.southernprose_cover_CAFG

I never studied philosophy at any point during my formal education. The closest I’ve ever come was I read my son’s college textbook from his philosophy class to read on my own, which unfortunately lacking the instructor’s insights, opinions, and analyses.

The odds are very, very high that Dr. Malpass will find a minor technical flaw in the considerably more complicated philosophical argument I’d like make in the the place of TAG, but it is an argument which does not reach a definite conclusion about whether or not God exists. This alternate disjunctive syllogism to TAG merely asserts that the probability of God is extremely high, given logic, reason, common sense, and scientific evidence, of course.

This was the original dichotomy from TAG that Dr. Malpass suggested was true — God exists, or no God exists.

We immediately find ourselves with a problem to solve: what is the definition for “no God”? We cannot say the alternative to God is nothing, because that’s simply not accurate. God is literally indescribable, as far as physical attributes are concerned. We are given metaphysical descriptors such as omniscient and omnipotent, but all that really means is intelligence and power beyond human comprehension.

God is neither man nor beast nor object — God is no thing.

So what is a good definition of God? The best short answer I’ve come up with for the lack of a better one is “supernatural intelligence.” But what does that mean? What does supernatural intelligence represent? Nothing is God, except (possibly) God.

Instead of saying “God or nothing exists”, it seems that we must say something else. Using the helpful example given by Dr. Malpass, we can substitute another proper noun for God and clearly see the problem with our tautology as constructed: “Either Fred or nothing created the universe.”

Nothing makes for a lousy causative agent, however. The most logical alternative to supernatural intelligence that immediately comes to mind is random chance, or extraordinarily good luck.

A brief aside before continuing– many amateur evangelists for atheism like to describe as an “invisible man in the sky”, which is ludicrous for this reason — God is not a man nor in the sky. God would not merely be an extra terrestrial, either. If a supernatural God created this universe, by definition God would be extra universal, meaning not an occupant of this universe.

(Proposed) New Dichotomy — God exists, or extraordinary good luck exists.

Another way of saying this might be to say that God represents order, and good luck represents chaos. We can recognize the existence of complex systems and observe order that occurs within our universe.

The question is this: can order emerge from chaos?

The introduction of scientific evidence into our revised existential question should prove most helpful in building a logical justification for our attempt to eventually contrive a new, more accurate disjointed syllogism.

First, we need to establish few simple statements of fact which are not open for debate.

Axiomatic statements

  1. The universe exists.
  2. Life exists within the universe.
  3. Intelligence exists.
  4. Good luck exists.

Axiom #1 — the universe exists.

This is an easy scientific observation, pretty much a no-brainer. However it’s quite important to note that if this particular universe did not exist, then life as we know it would almost certainly not exist.

Axiom #2 — Life exists.

Rather obvious.

Axiom #3 — Intelligence exists.

We know that intelligence exists because we are able to use language to communicate. Humans think intelligence is so important, we’re trying to create an artificial form.

Axiom #4 — Good luck exists.

And we can observe enough examples of normal good luck to know it also “exists”. Several rather prominent atheists have even claimed that miracles have occurred, which in lieu of a belief in a supernatural God requires some unusually good luck.

But is that the kind of luck we’re talking about? Nope. The type of good luck we’re talking about to compete with a supernatural God as an explanation for existence virtually inconceivable good luck.

Now we need a set of generally accepted scientific claims to justify the previous paragraph.

Scientific claims

  1. The universe had an origin.
  2. The universe was fine tuned as it was created.
  3. Life had an origin.
  4. The origin of life was contingent on the origin of this universe.

Scientific Claim #1 — the universe had an origin.

The Big Bang became a widely accepted scientific theory for the origin of the universe after Edwin Hubble discovered red shift that showed the universe was expanding, confirmed in 1965 by the discovery of cosmic microwave background radiation (CMB) by Penzias and Wilson.

The logical argument for intelligence would typically cite the First Cause argument to improve the odds of success for this universe, .

The logical argument for extraordinary good luck probably uses a multiverse hypothesis to improve chances for a successful Big Bang, but the multiverse hypothesis actually tries to remove luck from the equation, not to improve odds of success.

Scientific Claim #2 — The universe was fine tuned.

Sir Martin Rees has published work describing the origin of the universe as “fine-tuned”, meaning six different cosmological values have been calibrated with extraordinary precision, so that the universe could exist and support complex living organisms, at least on our planet. Sir Roger Penrose has performed calculations that have lead scientists to conclude this universe was a highly unlikely product of random chance. To allow for an alternative to supernatural creation, multiverse hypotheses have been proposed to address the statistically unlikely nature of the fine-tuning problem.

However, the origin of the universe was not the only fine tuned process…immediately after the Big Bang, an event cosmologists refer to as inflation occurred, also with incredible precision, which Stephen Hawking speculated that had the timing and duration of inflation varied as little as 1 in a million million, the universe would have collapsed.

The logical argument for intelligence would be that an intelligent entity acting as tuner “fine-tuned” the universe and managed inflation for the purpose of creating a universe just right for complex living organisms to inhabit earth.

The logical argument for extraordinary luck again relies on a multiverse hypothesis to explain away the improbability of the Big Bang and then the improbability of inflation, without explaining how the hypothetical multiverse might manipulate the laws of physics inside our universe once the Big Bang occurred and it began to exist.

Scientific Claim #3 — Life had an origin.

Because the universe has not always existed and life only exists within this universe (as far as we know) it is safe to assume that at some point, inanimate matter transformed into a living organism.

Chemists call this hypothesis abiogenesis. Dr. James Tour, an expert on the subject, has said this:

We have no idea how the molecules that compose living systems have been devised in concert so they wold work in concert to fulfill biology’s functions. We have no idea how the basic set of molecules, carbohydrates, nucleic acids, lipids, and proteins were made and how they could have coupled in proper sequences and then transformed into the ordered assemblies until there was a construction of a complex biological system and eventually to that first cell. Nobody has any idea about how this was done when using our commonly understood mechanisms of chemical science.

The logical argument for supernatural intelligence submits that a Creator created life. DNA is much too complex to exist as a result of random chemicals assembling to form information.

The logical argument for unbelievable good luck says “Hey, we are here. Our proof that life could form by random chance is self evident, merely because we exist.”

In other words, with enough time, anything is possible.

Scientific Claim #4 — Life required this universe to exist.

In order for the universe to exist, first the Big Bang and then inflation had to occur, both in proper sequence and with perfect timing. According to experts on the subjects, the probability of either of these events was infinitesimally  low.

The probability of the origin of life could not possibly be greater than the probability of the origin of the universe, because life exists within this universe.

Illustrating with an example, let’s pretend the probability of the Big Bang and inflation randomly creating the fine-tuned universe is as high as 1 percent (we know it isn’t anywhere close to that because of Penrose and Hawking, but we’re pretending, so it’s okay.)

The probability of the origin of life could never be any greater than 1 percent, because life requires the universe to exist.

The logical argument for supernatural intelligence says that the probability for each future contingency becomes worse than the preceding events on which the new event depended.

In other words, evolution depends on successful abiogenesis, which depends on a successful Big Bang immediately followed by successful inflation. The reason animals appear to be designed to fulfill a specific role in the environment is because they are designed. DNA is biological software code more complex than computer code.

The logical argument for ridiculous good luck is that no matter how unreasonable the odds of good luck might be, the alternative — a supernatural God, is simply unthinkable. It doesn’t matter how improbable the Big Bang would be fine-tuned, inflation perfectly timed, and all the other factors involved might be.

However, I suspect that Dr. Malpass would agree that this last argument for extraordinary good luck commits the same fallacy allegedly made by Matt Slick with his TAG argument.

Finally, our attempt at a disjunctive syllogism to attempt an answer to an existential question using our new dichotomy.

Either supernatural intelligence created life and the universe on purpose, or incredible good luck created life and the universe by accident, due to random chance.

Fine tuning cannot be random if the universe and life are both contingent upon its necessary success.

Therefore, supernatural intelligence exists.

* With apologies to the late Douglas Adams