Sunday, March 31, 2013


The following are established historical facts, according to the consensus of scholarship:

1. Jesus implicitly claimed to be God. Although the New Testament has some explicit claims along these lines, most scholars do not accept them as historical. However, they do accept that Jesus did things which, in Judaism, could only be done by God: forgiving sins, accepting worship.

2. Jesus was tortured, crucified, and killed. As N.T. Wright puts it somewhere, the crucifixion of Jesus is one of the central events in human history. You can't deny it without having to deny nearly all ancient history for consistency's sake.

3. Jesus' corpse was interred in a tomb carved out of solid rock. A large boulder weighing several tons was then lodged in the entrance to seal it. This was a common practice, and many tombs like this have been found from the same (general) area and era.

4. A couple of days after Jesus' death and burial, his tomb was found empty. One of the reasons this is widely accepted is that the New Testament presents women as the ones who discovered the empty tomb. In ancient Israel, women were considered hopeless gossips, and their testimony was considered worthless. So to say women were the ones who discovered the empty tomb could only hurt the credibility of the early Christians. The only reason to include it is because that's what actually happened, and the New Testament authors felt obligated to be honest about it.

5. "On multiple occasions and under various circumstances, different individuals and groups of people experienced appearances of Jesus alive from the dead. This is a fact that is almost universally acknowledged by New Testament scholars today." Just follow the link to read more about this.

6. The earliest Christians believed that Jesus was God incarnate, and that he literally, physically rose from the dead. These beliefs originate within days of Jesus' crucifixion and from the same place it allegedly happened (Jerusalem). They are not the product of generations of mythologizing, they were there at the very beginning.

Apart from numbers 2 and 5 (and I suspect 6, but I don't really know) there are scholars, reputable scholars, who deny these points. Nevertheless, they are accepted by the large majority of scholars and constitute the consensus positions. By "scholars" I emphatically do not mean "evangelical" scholars, or "conservative" scholars, or even "Christian" scholars. These are the consensus views by scholars across the board -- conservative and liberal, Christian and non-Christian, etc. And the scholars in question are scholars of the relevant disciplines.

None of this means that these facts are unassailable or that they cannot be questioned: of course they can. Scholars are often wrong, and the consensus of scholarship is often wrong. This is particularly the case with historical Jesus studies. I would argue, however, that the burden of proof rests on those who argue that the consensus of scholarship is wrong, or take positions entailing that the consensus of scholarship is wrong.

Friday, March 29, 2013

The perception of heresy

It's Good Friday but I don't have anything directly related. So instead I'll point to a fascinating article on Thomas Nagel called "The Heretic" (via Pajamas Media). The author equates materialism with reductionism and determinism at one point, but it's still pretty good.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Quote of the Day

At this point an annoying, though obvious, question intrudes. If Skinner's thesis is false, then there is no point in his having written the book or our reading it. But if his thesis is true, then there is also no point in his having written the book or our reading it. For the only point could be to modify behavior, and behavior, according to the thesis, is entirely controlled by arrangement of reinforcers. Therefore reading the book can modify behavior only if it is a reinforcer, that is, if reading the book will increase the probability of the behavior that led to reading the book (assuming an appropriate state of deprivation). At this point, we seem to be reduced to gibberish.

A counterargument might be made that even if the thesis is false, there is a point to writing and reading the book, since certain false these are illuminating and provocative. But this escape is hardly available. In this case, the thesis is elementary and not of much interest in itself. Its only value lies in its possible truth. But if the thesis is true, then reading or writing the book would appear to be an entire waste of time, since it reinforces no behavior.

Skinner would surely argue that reading the book, or perhaps the book itself, is a "reinforcer" in some other sense. He wants us to be persuaded by the book, and, not to our surprise, he refers to persuasion as a form of behavioral control, albeit a weak and ineffective form. Skinner hopes to persuade us to allow greater scope to the behavioral technologists, and apparently believes that reading this book will increase the probability of our behaving in such a way as to permit them greater scope (freedom?). Thus reading the book, he might claim, reinforces this behavior. It will change our behavior with respect to the science of behavior (p. 24).

Let us overlook the problem, insuperable in his terms, of clarifying the notion of "behavior that gives greater scope to behavioral technologists," and consider the claim that reading the book might reinforce such behavior. Unfortunately, the claim is clearly false, if we use the term "reinforce" with anything like its technical meaning. Recall that reading the book reinforces the desired behavior only if it is a consequence of the behavior. Obviously putting our fate in the hands of behavioral technologists is not behavior that led to (and hence can be reinforced by) our reading Skinner's book. Therefore the claim can be true only if we deprive the term "reinforce" of its technical meaning. Combining these observations, we see that there can be some point to reading the book or to Skinner's having written it only if the thesis of the book is divorced from the "science of behavior" on which it allegedly rests.

Let us consider further the matter of "persuasion." According to Skinner, we persuade ("change minds") "by manipulating environmental contingencies," specifically, "by pointing to stimuli associated with positive consequences" and "making a situation more favorable for action, as by describing likely reinforcing consequences" (p. 91f.). Even if we overlook the fact that persuasion, so characterized, is a form of control (a variety of "reinforcement") unknown to Skinner's science, his argument is in no way advanced.

Suppose Skinner were to claim that his book might persuade us by pointing to positive consequences of behavioral technology. But this will not do at all. It is not enough for him to point to those consequences (e.g., to draw pictures of happy people); rather he must show that these are indeed consequences of the recommended behavior. To persuade us, he must establish a connection between the recommended behavior and the pleasant situation he describes. The question is begged by use of the term "consequences."5 It is not enough merely to conjoin a description of the desired behavior and a description of the "reinforcing" state of affairs (we overlook, again, that not even these notions are expressible in Skinner's terms). Were that sufficient for "persuasion," then we could "persuade" someone of the opposite by merely conjoining a description of an unpleasant state of affairs with a description of the behavior that Skinner hopes to produce.

If persuasion were merely a matter of pointing to reinforcing stimuli and the like, then any persuasive argument would retain its force if its steps were randomly interchanged, or if some of its steps were replaced by arbitrary descriptions of reinforcing stimuli. Of course, this is nonsense. For an argument to be persuasive, at least to a rational person, it must be coherent; its conclusions must follow from its premises. But these notions are entirely beyond the scope of Skinner's science. When he states that "deriving new reasons from old, the process of deduction" merely "depends upon a much longer verbal history" (p. 96), he is indulging in hand-waving of a most pathetic sort.

Consider Skinner's claim that "we sample and change verbal behavior, not opinions," as, he says, behavioral analysis reveals (p. 95). Taken literally, this means that if, under a credible threat of torture, I force someone to say, repeatedly, that the earth stands still, then I have changed his opinion. Comment is unnecessary.

Skinner claims that persuasion is a weak method of control, and he asserts that "changing a mind is condoned by the defenders of freedom and dignity because it is an ineffective way of changing behavior, and the changer of minds can therefore escape from the charge that he is controlling people" (p. 97). Suppose that your doctor gives you a very persuasive argument to the effect that if you continue to smoke, you will die a horrible death from lung cancer. Is it necessarily the case that this argument will be less effective in modifying your behavior than any arrangement of true reinforcers?

In fact, whether persuasion is effective or not depends on the content of the argument (for a rational person), a factor that Skinner cannot begin to describe. The problem becomes still worse if we consider other forms of "changing minds." Suppose that a description of a napalm raid on a foreign village induces someone in an American audience to carry out an act of sabotage. In this case, the "effective stimulus" is not a reinforcer, but the mode of changing behavior may be quite effective, and, furthermore, the act that is performed (the behavior "reinforced") is entirely new (not in the "repertoire") and may not even have been hinted at in the "stimulus" that induced the change of behavior. In every possible respect, then, Skinner's account is simply incoherent. Since his William James Lectures of 1947,6 Skinner has been sparring with these and related problems. The results are nil. It remains impossible for Skinner to formulate questions of the kind just raised in his own terms, let alone investigate them. What is more, no serious scientific hypotheses with supporting evidence have been produced to substantiate the extravagant claims to which he is addicted. Furthermore, this record of failure was predictable from the start, from an analysis of the problems and the means proposed to deal with them. It must be stressed that "verbal behavior" is the only aspect of human behavior that Skinner has attempted to investigate in any detail. To his credit, he recognized early that only through a successful analysis of language could he hope to deal with human behavior. By comparing the results that have been achieved in this period with the claims that are still advanced, we gain a good insight into the nature of Skinner's science of behavior. My impression is, in fact, that the claims are becoming more extreme and more strident as the inability to support them and the reasons for this failure become increasingly obvious.

It is unnecessary to labor the point any further. Evidently Skinner has no way of dealing with the factors involved in persuading someone or changing his mind. The attempt to invoke "reinforcement" merely leads to incoherence. The point is crucial. Skinner's discussion of persuasion and "changing minds" is one of the few instances in which he tries to come to terms with what he calls the "literature of freedom and dignity." The libertarian whom he condemns distinguishes between persuasion and certain forms of control. He advocates persuasion and objects to coercion. In response, Skinner claims that persuasion is itself a (weak) form of control and that by using weak methods of control we simply shift control to other environmental conditions, not to the person himself (pp. 97 and 99).

Thus, Skinner claims, the advocate of freedom and dignity is deluding himself in his belief that persuasion leaves the matter of choice to "autonomous man," and furthermore he poses a danger to society because he stands in the way of more effective controls. As we see, however, Skinner's argument against the "literature of freedom and dignity" is without force. Persuasion is no form of control at all, in Skinner's sense; in fact, he is unable to deal with the concept. But there is little doubt that persuasion can "change minds" and affect behavior, on occasion quite effectively.

Since persuasion cannot be coherently described as the result of arrangement of reinforcers, it follows that behavior is not entirely determined by the specific contingencies to which Skinner arbitrarily restricts his attention, and that the major thesis of the book is false. Skinner can escape this conclusion only by claiming that persuasion is a matter of arranging reinforcing stimuli, but this claim is tenable only if the term "reinforcement" is deprived of its technical meaning and used as a mere substitute for the detailed and specific terminology of ordinary language. In any event, Skinner's "science of behavior" is irrelevant: the thesis of the book is either false (if we use terminology in its technical sense) or empty (if we do not). And the argument against the libertarian collapses entirely.

Not only is Skinner unable to uphold his claim that persuasion is a form of control, but he also offers not a particle of evidence to support his claim that the use of "weak methods of control" simply shifts the mode of control to some obscure environmental factor rather than to the mind of autonomous man. Of course, from the thesis that all behavior is controlled by the environment, it follows that reliance on weak rather than strong controls shifts control to other aspects of the environment. But the thesis, in so far as it is at all clear, is without empirical support, and in fact may even be empty, as we have seen in discussing "probability of response" and persuasion. Skinner is left with no coherent criticism of the "literature of freedom and dignity."

Noam Chomsky
"The Case against B. F. Skinner"
The New York Review of Books 17, no. 11 (Dec. 30, 1971)

Wednesday, March 20, 2013


I was incommunicado for the last week and a half. Here are a few tidbits.

1. It's looking more official: Voyager 1 may have left the solar system.

2. Congratulations to my Catholic friends. They lost a man of great humility and gained a man of great humility.

3. This drives me nuts. Sarah Hoyt, science-fiction author, had taught her son how to read and do basic arithmetic before he ever started school. When he started first-grade, at the first parent-teacher meeting, the teacher told Hoyt that her son was learning disabled and would never learn to read. When she told him he was already reading fifth-grade level books, she refused to believe her. The evidence the teacher gave is that on a math test page, where all the questions were what is 1 + 0? what is 2 + 0? what is 3 + 0?, the son had written at the top of the page "This is dumb. Any number plus zero is that number." That was the evidence against him, the fact that he had understood the principle before the teacher had actually explained it to the class. Hoyt and her husband had their son tested and he turned out extremely gifted. When they brought the results of the test to the school, the teacher and principle were not humbled and deeply apologetic, they felt betrayed.

4. Happy belated St. Patrick's Day. Here's an excellent article on him and here's a video.

5. Mars may have been able to support primitive life millions of years ago, and some scientists say it may even be possible today, although I don't see how: the claim is that parts of Mars may have seasonal flowing water, but the atmosphere is so thin there that the boiling point is lower than the melting point -- meaning, water goes directly from ice to steam. At any rate, I really need to get off my duff and continue writing my series on whether life elsewhere in the universe would present any problems for Christianity.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Subject lables

This is an update of this post. To reiterate: My theory on labeling my blogposts is that labels should be broad rather than specific. This is partially for the benefit of my readers, so they don't have to negotiate an endless list of labels, and partially for my own benefit so I don't have to compose and keep track of such a list. For example, I have labels for Religion and Science, but not for the Anthropic Principle or Big Bang Cosmology. Occasionally I've found it necessary to be more specific. So from Culture and Ethics I made labels that dealt specifically with Homosexuality and Abortion; from Books I made a label for Quotes; etc. And while, thus far, I have a label for Philosophy, but not more specific labels for philosophy of mind, philosophy of religion, epistemology, etc., I suspect I'll have to break it down at some point in the future. I'm putting this off, because I will want to be consistent, and this will require going through my whole oeuvre and relabeling everything.

Anyway, I had also been avoiding breaking down the Labels sidebar into separate lists for subjects and people, but I finally went ahead and did the deed. The only person label that's still in the subject label list is the Historical Jesus, and that's because those posts are often dealing with him as a subject of research rather than a person being referenced.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Missing Neutrinos

One common argument that I’ve heard from young-earth advocates is that measurements of the sun show that it is steadily decreasing in size. If this is the case, it would have reached its present size in a hundred million years, or possibly less. Therefore, it hasn’t been burning for the several billion years that are usually claimed for it. The theory behind this is that the sun is actually burning by gravitational contraction, not by nuclear fusion. Prior to the discovery of nuclear power, this was how everyone thought the sun burned. In defense of this, they point out that nuclear burning produces neutrinos, and the amount of neutrinos that have been detected are only a third of what they should be if the sun was burning by nuclear power.

But there are major problems with this scenario. First, if the sun were really getting smaller, total solar eclipses wouldn’t have been possible until very recently. A total solar eclipse occurs when the moon moves between the sun and the earth, blocking out the sun except for its corona. If the sun used to be larger, even slightly, the moon would not have completely blocked it out, and the corona would not have been observable; in fact, prior to the 20th century, this was one of the only ways that people could observe and learn about the sun and its corona. Yet total solar eclipses have been observed throughout all of recorded human history. Obviously the sun is the same size today as it has been for as long as human beings have been observing solar eclipses.

Second, the pressure and temperature at the center of any mass the size of the sun inevitably ignites nuclear fusion. This is a basic law of physics. Nuclear power was not discovered until relatively recently, because it involves the subatomic realm that was not accessible until science had advanced to a certain level; nevertheless, it is one of the fundamental properties of matter. This argument that the sun actually burns via gravitational contraction could only be valid if nuclear energy didn’t operate. This would require us to believe that nuclear power plants don’t actually produce energy, and so are essentially a giant conspiracy.

Third, neutrinos are almost entirely produced by nuclear burning; the fact that any significant amount is observed shows that the sun is burning by nuclear power. It was certainly unusual that astronomers didn’t observe as much neutrino output as they expected, but this is not even remotely the same thing as evidence that the sun wasn’t really burning by nuclear power.

At any rate, the problem has since been solved: neutrinos come in three different “flavors” (electron, muon, and tau). Nuclear burning only produces the first of these, so scientists were only measuring one-third of the types of neutrinos that exist. But it turns out that neutrinos oscillate or convert from one flavor to another. With this, everything falls into place: the reason they were only detecting a third of the neutrinos they expected is because they were only measuring a third of the neutrinos that were being produced. As soon as they expanded their measurements to include the other two flavors, the number of neutrinos they measured perfectly matched the number of neutrinos they predicted.

Fourth, the measurements selected to argue that the sun is shrinking were cherry picked. The most extreme samples were chosen in order to invent this argument, even though they fell well within the error bars at the time. Since then, much more accurate measurements have been taken, which prove beyond any reasonable doubt that the sun is not shrinking. As with the depth of meteoritic dust on the moon, this argument was rigged by selecting the most extreme measurements and misrepresenting them as if they were the most reliable ones.

One final point: even if we ignore all of the above information for the sake of argument, this scenario would only allow us to conclude that the sun is less than a hundred million years old, not a few thousand years old, as the young-earth position requires. A hundred million years is about fifteen times less than the several billion years usually ascribed to the sun, but it’s about 15,000 times more than several thousand years. At best, it would show that both sides are wrong, but the young-earth position much more so.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Thought of the Day

"God watches over drunks and little children." So play it safe: get your children drunk.