Sunday, December 14, 2014

Quote of the Day

Equality is no more than an empty shadow so long as monopolies give the rich the power of life and death over their fellow human beings. -- French revolutionary Jacques Roux, quoted in Albert Soboul, A Short History of the French Revolution, 1789-1799 (London: University of California Press, 1977), pp. 86-87

Friday, December 12, 2014

Review: The Canonical Gospels

Early last year, I got into a longish conversation with an evangelist. This is unusual, as I generally would regard this as a waste of time. What made him different from most was that he was able to talk about things other than Christianity, and showed some actual curiosity.

I was periodically walking back and forth in the food court to stretch, and every time I passed him he noticed my "Secular Values Voter" button. So eventually he stopped me to ask what this meant, and that led into a discussion about Christianity and various more or less related topics. Nonetheless, he did eventually zero in, before taking his leave, of how he really thought I should read the Gospel, and was sure that if I did so I would be convinced. I'd always figured I'd get around to this sooner or later, in view of the books' historical and cultural significance, but never had. So I told him I would, and within a couple months did so. I took a bunch of notes with a view to writing a review here before sending it to the evangelist, but recently decided to write him off the top of my head before he forgot our encounter (or changed his email address). What I wrote him is below (fittingly in red, since he used the sender name "jesus christ" -- no kidding).

Dear Pete,

After getting caught up on already planned books, I followed your suggestion and read the four canonical Gospels (KJV). That was over a year ago, and I meant to write a thorough review for my blog, but haven't managed to get around to it yet. Rather than delay any further, I decided to just go ahead and write you about my experience.

To aid me in understanding the material, I concurrently read the corresponding chapters of Asimov's Guide to the New Testament. (Since he discusses the books in their traditional order, that's how I read them, even though I knew that Mark is generally regarded as the most "primitive" Gospel and was probably written first.) But even if I hadn't, I think I'm sharp enough that I would have made many of the same observations on my own.

My most striking impression when I was finished was that there was "no there there." It was really anticlimactic. My whole life I'd been hearing that Jesus had this incredible message that I had to read the Gospel to get, yet I could find hardly any message at all. Most of his preachings seem to have taken the form of parables, and most of these were sort of meta-allegories about the importance of the message, without actually telling you what the message is. About the only substantive message I could find was the Golden Rule, and even that -- as I also had already known -- was not original with Jesus. For instance, his older contemporary the Rabbi Hillel had said something quite similar, not to mention sages in other parts of the world.

Although I'd heard previously that there are inconsistencies between the Gospels, I had no first-hand experience with these until I read them at your prompting. The biggest ones are between John and the other, so-called Synoptic Gospels. One concerns where Jesus recruits his first disciples: John puts this by the River Jordan, whereas the earlier books place it in Galilee. Another is his relation to John the Baptist. The Synoptic Gospels have him and Jesus competing for followers, while John says he told his followers to leave him for Jesus.

Most importantly, Asimov illustrates how the discrepancies between the Gospels aren't random, but actually reflect pretty well the theological evolution of Christianity from a Jewish sect -- one whose leader initially denied being divine -- to a Gentile religion holding this same figure to have known he was God from the outset.

I thank you for motivating me to read these books after so many years of procrastination. While doing so hasn't changed my fundamental view of Christianity as a product of human imagination, it certainly has deepened my understanding of it.

Eric

P.S. What prompted me to finally write you was having looked at a web site making the case for Jesus' not having been a historical figure at all. It argues that Christianity was the product of a gradual syncretistic fusion of Judaism, Greek Cynicism and Platonism, and other traditions, which became institutionalized before deciding on a unifying theology, including the idea of an incarnate God. While this is an intriguing idea, I haven't studied sufficiently to have an informed opinion, so for the time being I'll remain agnostic on this question.

Motte, Bailey, and Rape

One of Thom Hartmann's recent "The Good, the Bad, and the Very, Very Ugly" segments -- in which he seems to be less careful about his facts than elsewhere in his programs -- criticized some statements by Tammy Bruce in a superficial, nearly puerile way. I made the following comment on his website:

With all due respect, Thom, your comment isn't a serious critique of what Bruce said. Suggesting that the public image or status of victimhood is being romanticized isn't at all the same as saying that actually being victimized is "cool." For instance, there's widespread admiration for POWs, especially those like John McCain who were tortured. This is why some politicians have been caught making false claims along these lines. You could call this a romanticization, but it in no way implies that anyone thinks it's cool to be tortured.

I've attended a few Take Back the Night rallies, and I've noticed that typically, after someone gives their personal testimony about being sexually assaulted, they're applauded. Of course participants will say that it's not their victimization that's being applauded, but rather their courage in coming forward to talk about it. Nonetheless, it could be argued that this is a social environment in which people are given an incentive to self-identify as victims, even if the facts may not warrant it.

In fact, at the first TBTN I attended, one of the participants implied a man had drugged her to unconsciousness in order to take her, even though the very fact that he called her about it the next day, as well as what he said in that call, indicated he'd perceived her as conscious and willing, and had expected her to remember the encounter. When I wrote the campus paper about this discrepancy, the reply by a student anti-rape leader consisted of stock rhetoric while ignoring or distorting all the factual points I had made, such as by pretending that my pointing out the difference between blacking out and passing out was somehow equivalent to saying no one ever passes out from drinking. She was too preoccupied with reaffirming a party line to actually read my letter for comprehension. (You may be able to find these letters, along with my rejoinder, in the online archives of the Daily Pennsylvanian on or about 4/9/05.) Similarly, it seems the Rolling Stone reporter was too doctrinally sure about what had happened to the woman she interviewed, to remember the normal journalistic standards about fact-checking.

I must say I noticed a similar two-step in the remarks of your recent NOW guest. I'd heard previously about traumatic memories' being stored differently -- but never from feminist representatives in the context of an actual rape trial. In those circumstances, what you always hear, without any qualification, is "Believe women," "Women don't lie about rape," and cries of outrage any time a defendant is found "not guilty" in spite of the victim's (traumatically unreliable) testimony.

This could be considered an example of what's been called the "motte-and-bailey doctrine" (http://slatestarcodex.com/2014/11/03/all-in-all-another-brick-in-the-motte/): the strategic equivocation of making a very dubious or totally indefensible argument to those who are sympathetically inclined; then, when criticized for it, saying, "All I mean is [something totally uncontroversial and obvious]"; then going back to the extreme and indefensible claim as soon as the critics go away.

Yesterday I checked out a party at one of the office buildings I visit regularly. I'd seen it announced there as an Open House a couple days before; nonetheless, noticing from the outside how classy it looked, I worried that I might not be admitted since I'm not a tenant. I'd thought of going there before visiting the credit union to make a deposit, but turned away out of feeling intimidated. While making the errand, I realized this was an instance of my principle, "If you're afraid of something for no good reason, that's a very good reason to do it," and that this was an opportunity to give myself an exposure to help me learn not to be controlled by social anxiety. I decided to put myself in something like the "little kid trance" that I discovered several years ago, looking at everything wide-eyed without anticipation, only curiosity. In this way I got myself to walk in. As a further exposure to the possibility of rejection, and preempt any sense that I was "sneaking in," I stopped to ask the security officer, "So, what's all this?" He said it was a Christmas party. He then asked if I work there, and I said "No, I deliver payrolls here." He nodded but said nothing else. So I walked a little further in and looked around. Lots of people were talking, eating, and drinking. Together they were making a lot of noise. I could have served myself food or a drink, but didn't see much point in that by itself. I might have felt differently if I'd seen someone I recognized. I'd have probably at least spent a moment greeting and making small talk with them. But since I didn't notice anyone I knew, hanging around just for some free food and drink didn't seem very interesting. And I had other things I meant to get done before going home. In the last analysis, I felt the most important thing was that I had given myself an exposure to something that was triggering my social anxiety, and showed myself that I could manage it. So after a moment I left.

Monday, December 08, 2014

"Why Does Power Corrupt?" by Eliezer Yudkowsky

This seems like an excellent summary of the question. I'd intuited the general idea but never thought it through so thoroughly. http://lesswrong.com/lw/uu/why_does_power_corrupt/

Saturday, December 06, 2014

Quote of the Day

If you are hearing an argument for the first time, and you are only hearing one side of the argument, then indeed you should beware. In a way, no one can really trust the theory of natural selection until after they have listened to creationists for five minutes; and then they know it's solid. -- Eliezer Yudkowsky, What Evidence Filtered Evidence?"

Friday, November 28, 2014

America's Deadliest DA

For those who may have forgotten, that's what many have called former Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne Abraham, now running for Mayor:


http://www.nytimes.com/1995/07/16/magazine/the-deadliest-da.html?module=Search&mabReward=relbias%3Ar

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Moneyball for Government

The authors of a new book suggest taking an evidence-based approach to deciding on government policy.
http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/using-numbers-based-approach-end-political-gridlock-moneyball-government/

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

If consciousness is localized, why does my mind keep wandering?