Saturday, July 30, 2011

Quote of the Day

A typical test in the Kahneman and Tversky work is this. A subject is told to imagine that he is a participant in a TV quiz show and that his answers thus far have won him $100. The quizmaster now offers the participant a choice: (1) take the $100 and quit, or (2) win $500 for a correct answer to the next question but forfeit all, including the $100, if he fails. The participant is told that, of the earlier questions, he has answered one in three correctly. What should the participant choose? Decision theory shows how to estimate the utility of each alternative: that of (1) is 100/1 = $100; that of (2) is 500/3 = $166.67. Because of the utility of the second is greater, decision theory endorses the second choice. Most of Kahneman and Tversky's subjects choose the safe $100. In fact, Kahneman and Tversky have worked out a number of psychological utility functions and have shown their departure from the ideal or mathematical function. It might thus seem plausible that the mathematics of decision do not supply a competence theory for the psychology of decision.

But the mathematics is a simplification and idealization of real situations. The mathematics does not apply, if the participant's life depends on having $100 and if he has no pressing need for an addition $400. It does not apply if the participant is so frightened or bored by being on the quiz show that he would be prepared to pay $67 to be out of it. It applies only within narrowly defined circumstances. Perhaps the tendency of subjects to choose differently from the mathematicians is due in part, though not altogether, to a failure to grasp the mathematical presuppositions or to keep from crowding in considerations that mathematicians studiously block off.

There is, however, much more to be said about the interpretation of Kahneman and Tversky's data. Suppose that instead of testing naive subjects, they tested mathematicians who had studied decision theory. Would not the results be different? Suppose, too, that before taking part in the experiments, subjects were required to read a couple of Kahneman and Tversky's papers. Would the results not be different? Of course they would be, but why? Presumably, because the subjects would then have satisfied themselves that the mathematics of decision theorists reflects intuition better than untutored impulse. But that is precisely to claim that the mathematics is a competence theory, that it does reflect carefully sifted intuition. (For present purposes, I assume that Kahneman and Tversky are applying the appropriate mathematics, though the matter is disputed by Cohen (1981).) Kahneman and Tversky (1982) go some distance toward recognizing all this:

It is important to emphasize ... that the [psychological] value function is merely a convenient summary of a common pattern of choices and not a universal law.

Kahneman and Tversky have also gone some distance toward explaining erroneous decisions. Take, for example, the common gambler's fallacy, as manifested by betting on tosses of a coin. A particular case of the fallacy is that it is an advantage to bet heads after a run of tails. Kahneman and Tversky (1973) suggested that the fallacy can be explained if we suppose that the gambler knows that long runs of tails are unlikely but fails to take account of the fact that a coin has no memory. The naive gambler, then, is acting on a belief, in this case a true one, that makes his action intelligible. The irrationality lies in the failure to take account of other relevant facts. Notice, though, that the belief that rationalizes the naive gambler's decision is itself a mathematical one -- the probability of a particular outcome is the ratio of the number of event types favorable for an outcome to the number of all relevant event types. Though the gambler may not have quantified things so precisely, the mathematical law does make the intuition precise.

Nevertheless, Tversky and Kahneman (1983) do seem to reject the idea that a mathematical ideal can be a psychologically useful competence theory:

Indeed, the evidence does not seem to support a "truth plus error" model, which assumes a coherent system of beliefs that is perturbed by various sources of distortion and error. Hence we do not share Dennis Lindley's optimistic opinion that "inside every incoherent person there is a coherent one trying to get out," and we suspect that incoherence is more than skin deep. (p. 313)

This brings us back to the specter discussed in the last section, so I do not repeat here the remarks made there. Instead I would like to comment on what seems to be one of the main grounds for the judgment just cited. It is that "in cognition, as in perception, the same mechanisms produce both valid and invalid judgments" (Tversky and Kahneman 1983, p. 313).

Apart from any scruples we may have about the use of the word "mechanisms" in this connection, there is something unsatisfactory about the last statement. Tversky and Kahneman are drawing a parallel with visual illusions and they observe, correctly, that visual illusions are the product of a perfectly running visual system. But the analogy is in many ways misleading. Just imagine for a moment that what vision delivers in the first instance is a set of uninterpreted, well-formed formulas in a language, a position I am inclined to adopt because of certain findings in visual perception (see Niall (unpublished)). If that position is correct, the parallel Tversky and Kahneman seek to establish cannot be constructed. The reason is that the output of an inference in everyday reasoning is an interpreted sentence. There is nothing wrong with the bent appearance of a straight stick partly submerged in water; it is the interpreted sentence, "The stick is bent," that is unsatisfactory. There is something deeply wrong with the gambler's conclusion that, because runs of tails are rare, the probability of a head increases after such a run.

How does this difference make a difference? Well, it would be odd if the same set of implicators (in my language), properly applied (as Tversky and Kahneman allow), yielded both valid and invalid inferences. Something is needed to explain the variation. To begin, note that the same set of basic implicators must be available to Kahneman and Tversky on the one hand and to their subjects on the other. How, then, could Kahneman and Tversky use such untrustworthy devices to attain such certain results as the mathematics against which they interpret their subjects' responses? Any answer I might offer is going to be far more uncertain than the mathematics in question. But the existence of that mathematics and of Kahneman and Tversky's access to it undermines their rejection of the mathematics as the appropriate competence theory.

In the light of that general stance I can offer one conjecture. In the first place, there are many implicators, and people seem to be able to add to the set that nature has endowed them with. That was the lesson of an earlier discussion in this chapter. It could be that an individual or group of individuals could add a faulty implicator, as the gambler's fallacy suggests. It could be that the implicators involved in decision under uncertainty are remote from the basic ones and require a long train of intermediate inferences in justification of their validity. My conjecture is that the basic set with which we start out comprises only valid implicators and that their operation is infallible in clear cases. it is surely this that enables mathematicians to overcome the impulses they share with the naive gambler -- start out from clear and compelling intuitions and build up the system called decision theory. Mathematicians must find sure footing somewhere; I suggest that it is in the basic implicators. This is not to say that the output of the basic implicators is imposed on the mind, that judgment is forced by them. Rather, the idea is that their output is inevitably presented to the mind whenever the conditions for their operation are satisfied. Judgment seems to be another manner.

This all leads to the conclusion that we have seen no good grounds, theoretical or empirical, to reject the thesis that (ideal) logic supplies a competence theory for the psychology of human reasoning.

John Macnamara
A Border Dispute: The Place of Logic in Psychology

Thursday, July 28, 2011


6 Technologies Conspicuously Absent from Sci-Fi Movies. They had me at #6: bicycles. Also, while we're at it, here's 6 Baffling Flaws in Famous Sci-Fi Technology. R-rated language warning for both.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Bible and the Age of the Universe, part 3

In parts 1 and 2 I argued that we cannot assess how old the universe or the human race are respectively from the Bible alone. One common challenge to both points is that they are attempts to reconcile the Bible with contemporary science. The claims I've made were (allegedly) unheard of prior to the scientific revolution, the implication being that the Bible does imply an age for the universe and humanity that are incompatible with science. As an aside, I find it interesting that the two camps who tend to make this charge are secularists and young-earth creationists, who often seem to team up. In studying this subject I've discovered that it is not monochromatic, but supports both sides in different ways.

When The Fundamentals (from whence we get the derogatory term "fundamentalist") were written at the beginning of the 20th century, they argued for an ancient earth and universe and in particular for the day-age interpretation -- that the days of creation should be understood as long periods of time. However, they didn't merely appeal to the Bible, but to Church history as well: "Do not think that this larger reading of the days is a new speculation. You find Augustine in early times declaring that it is hard or altogether impossible to say of what fashion these days are, and Thomas Aquinas, in the middle ages, leaves the matter an open question" (see also here). Astronomer Hugh Ross has documented in Creation and Time and A Matter of Days plenty of Christians throughout Church history who argued that the days of creation were long periods of time. Christian philosopher Kenneth Richard Samples, a colleague of Ross, writes, "From the time of the Church fathers, through the Reformation, and up to the present, various views have prevailed, some more broadly represented than others, but none was ever considered the definitive, or the only, orthodox biblical position." Similarly, the 19th century theologian William G. T. Shedd wrote in his Dogmatic Theology:

The very common assertion, that the church has altered its exegesis, under the compulsion of modern geology, is one of the errors of ignorance. The doctrine of an immense time, prior to the six creative days, was a common view among the fathers and schoolmen. ... Respecting the length of the six creative days, speaking generally, for there was some difference of views, the patristic and mediaeval exegesis makes them to be long periods, not days of twenty-four hours. The latter interpretation has prevailed only in the modern church.

In response to this, young-earth proponents state that these claims are simply false: for example, in The Genesis Debate which has proponents of three different interpretations of Genesis 1 defend their positions, J. Ligon Duncan III and David W. Hall write "This claim [that there was no exegetical consensus on the days of Genesis] is wrong. There was only one view following the repudiation of Augustine's view, and seldom (if ever) before the nineteenth century was the day-age or the framework view advocated." Similarly, in another book Mark Van Bebber and Paul Taylor write, "One is caused to question whether Dr. Ross has actually read any of the writings he quotes. Most of the 'Church Fathers' he claims as believing in figurative 'days' actually believed just the opposite. This is even evident within the same context of the quotes Ross reported. Creation and Time misinterprets no fewer than 9 of the 14 men listed." Unfortunately, the title of the latter book is the same as the book they are criticizing: Creation and Time. It's difficult to accept their condemnation of Ross's alleged misrepresentations when they gave their book the same title as his, and had Ross's name (in the subtitle) in larger font on the cover than their own -- all without permission (Ross, Matter of Days, 262, n. 7). I could certainly be wrong, but it looks like they were trying to trick people into thinking they were buying his book instead of theirs. Moreover, they don't give any reason for thinking the day-age interpretation is figurative rather than literal; and I don't understand why they found it necessary to put "Church Fathers" in scare quotes.

As far as I can understand them, there are plenty of statements in the Church fathers which, at the very least, strongly imply that some of them understood the days of creation as calendar days. Conversely, in defense of the view expressed by Shedd, Ross, Samples, and The Fundamentals, it must be recognized that there are also plenty of statements in the Church fathers which claim or imply that the days of creation were millennia. For example, some of the fathers argued that God's statement to Adam that he would die "in the day" that he ate the forbidden fruit (Gen. 2:17) referred to the sixth day of creation. Since the time between Adam's creation and his death was slightly less than a thousand years (Gen. 5:5), and since a thousand years is as a day to the Lord (Ps. 90:4), the sixth day (when Adam was created) was a thousand years long (see, i.e. Justin Martyr, Dialogue With Trypho, 81; Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 5:23:2). Others, in similar language as Hebrews 4, identified the present or (more often) the future age with the seventh day of creation, sometimes claiming that it was instituted with Christ's first advent (Irenaeus, Against Heresies 30:4; 33:2; Origen, Against Celsus, 6:61).

There's more to the story, though. Prior to the Reformation, most biblical commentators believed in multiple interpretations of Scripture. That is, any given passage had several different meanings. And it seems apparent that the Church fathers understood the day-age interpretation as a secondary one; that is, the days of creation referred to long spans of time in addition to their primary meaning.

This is evident from the fact that they thought each day was an age of human history. For example, they often understood the sixth day of creation as referring to the 1,000 years prior to Christ. The problem comes in when we remember that human beings weren't created until the sixth day. So if the sixth day referred to both the thousand-year period leading up to Jesus' time and the time when human beings were first created, were they suggesting that Adam and Eve were created sometime within the millennium before Christ? Were they suggesting that all of human history -- from Noah to Abraham to Moses to David to Nehemiah, etc. -- could be squeezed into the 1,000 years leading up to Jesus' birth? Of course not. Obviously, understanding the sixth day as a millennium is a secondary interpretation.

So what can we conclude from this? Not as much as some might hope. For one thing, the recognition that it was a secondary interpretation does not negate the fact that it was still a common interpretation. Regardless of whether it was secondary, the early Church fathers still understood the days of creation to be reasonably interpreted as long periods of time. They gave exegetical arguments for it. Perhaps those arguments were not sound, but it can't be claimed that the day-age interpretation is just a recent position. Part of the problem here is that the ancient and medieval exegetes thought that the various interpretations of Scripture fell into particular categories, and so they read these categories into the Bible, even where they didn't fit. This often led to interpretations which were highly subjective and forced. But this is not the case for the days of creation. They gave exegetical arguments for why they should be understood as long periods of time, and these arguments were widely accepted. Moreover, the point is not whether we should understand the Bible as having several different interpretations (Catholics do, Protestants don't, I make no comment here) but whether the early Church fathers did.

For another thing, young-earth proponents seem to assume that since the day-age view was a secondary interpretation, the primary interpretation was the calendar-day view. But this doesn't seem clear. There are few explicit statements to this effect, and we know that some of the fathers, most notably Augustine, thought that all of the events of creation week took place instantaneously. Others argued that some aspects of the syntax in Genesis 1 were unusual, and shouldn't be understood superficially. Origen went so far as to mock those who took the creation stories in Genesis 1-3 as historical (De Principiis, 4:1:16) The point being that there was controversy in the early Church over how the creation narrative should be interpreted, and this controversy extended to the nature of the creation days. If a Christian writer of the time thought that the days of creation were calendar days, he would have had to make that clear to his readers since some of the most prolific Christian authors denied it. In the absence of such clarifications, there is simply no reason to assume that the calendar-day interpretation was universally presumed as the primary interpretation. How do we know that the "instantaneous" view wasn't the primary interpretation?

Thus far, I have been discussing what the Church fathers wrote about the days of creation, rather than what they wrote about the age of the universe. But their understanding of the latter can be easily determined by reflection upon the former: if they thought that the six creation days were each 1,000 year periods, or that all of the events in Genesis 1 took place instantaneously in no time, how old would they have concluded the universe is? Well, several thousand years. They state this pretty explicitly. Because of this, many young-earth proponents think that their views are much closer to those of the early Church, and with some justification.

However, it must be borne in mind that the reason contemporary young-earth proponents make this claim is because they insist that the days of creation can only be validly interpreted as referring to calendar days. In other words, they have different reasons for believing the earth to be several thousand years old than Christians have historically.

The significance of this is twofold: first, an argument is only as good as its premises. Since modern young-earth proponents disagree with the traditional premises that the creation days are millennia (the day-age view) or that they're metaphorical (the instantaneous creation view), their "agreement" that the universe is several thousand years old becomes irrelevant.

Second, modern day-age proponents are closer to the beliefs of the early Christians, since they agree with one of their premises, that the days of creation refer to long periods of time. They disagree that they were long periods of a specific length (1,000 years), and that this constitutes a secondary, rather than the primary, interpretation. But their agreement is more significant than the superficial one between modern young-earth proponents and the Church fathers.

I've been emphasizing the views of the early Church since this is the focus, or one of the foci, of both sides of the debate. I haven't studied the medieval exegetes enough to say much about them, other than there doesn't seem to be much alteration of the themes discussed above. Augustine's view of instantaneous creation was commonly accepted. Anselm, for example, wrote (in Cur Deus Homo, 1:18)that "the whole creation took place at once, and those days in which Moses appears to describe a successive creation are not to be understood like such days as ours."

With the Reformation, Protestants rejected multiple interpretations of the Bible and, while respecting the views of Christians throughout history, did not let traditional interpretations determine their understanding of the biblical text. Many accepted the calendar-day interpretation, including Martin Luther, but he also wrote in The Creation that the creation account "contains things the most important, and at the same time the most obscure," and, in light of all the differing interpretations of it made before his time, despaired of ever truly understanding Genesis 1 beyond the simple facts "that the world began, and was made of God, out of nothing."

Protestants formed creeds to summarize their positions regarding the most important aspects of Christianity. Very few of them addressed the nature of the creation days or the age of the universe. The Belgic Confession merely states that God created everything "when it seemed good to him" (quand bon lui a semblé; art. 12), which suggests its authors were being deliberately agnostic about the universe's age.

The Protestant confession that is most often appealed to by young-earth advocates is the Westminster Confession. Some of the 151 authors expressed elsewhere a belief in the calendar-day interpretation (five or fifteen of them depending on who you ask), and the Confession itself states that God created everything "in the space of six days" (ch. 4). From this it is claimed that the Westminster Confession affirms the calendar-day interpretation.

I think this is reading too much into the Confession. I agree, after all, that God created everything in the space of six days. I disagree, however, that he created everything in the space of six calendar days. The Westminster Confession does not say that the days of creation should be understood as 24-hour periods; and, again, given the diversity of views on this issue, if they were intending to do so, they would have had to make this much more explicit. The faculty of Westminster Theological Seminary, which subscribes to the Westminster Confession, commissioned a report on this issue, and concluded that the phrase "in the space of six days" was not meant to define the days of creation as calendar days. Rather, it was intended to counter (but not condemn) the Augustinian view that creation took place instantaneously and took no time.

... we recognize that the exegetical question of the length of the days of Genesis 1 may be an issue which cannot be, and therefore is not intended by God to be, answered in dogmatic terms. To insist that it must comes dangerously close to demanding from God revelation which he has not been pleased to bestow upon us, and responding to a threat to the biblical world view with weapons that are not crafted from the words which have proceeded out of the mouth of God.

So there were a multiplicity of views on how to understand the creation narrative in Genesis 1 throughout Christian history, long before the discoveries of modern science that the universe is ancient. The day-age interpretation in particular is neither new nor unusual. If it is objected that no one predicted that the universe is billions of years old from the Bible alone, I simply respond that the whole point of these posts is that the Bible does not give us enough information by itself to determine a specific age of the universe, so I don't consider the fact that no one did to be a failing.

The study commissioned by Westminster Theological Seminary makes a further point, that this issue "never seems to have been regarded as a test of orthodoxy in the reformed churches." Perhaps the most important thing to take away from all of this is that historically Christians have not considered the length of the days of creation a significant issue, and they were tolerant of different interpretations. This point is made best by Gleason Archer and Hugh Ross in their contributions to The Genesis Debate:

Prior to 1650 exegetes gave little attention to the length of the creation days. Of the approximately two thousand extant pages of creation-day commentary by early Church fathers, only a total of about two pages address the duration of the creation days. Anyone who reads the original source literature will notice the difference in tone between the early Church fathers and modern 24-hour advocates. The older writings are devoid of passionate certainty and dogmatism about the length of the creation days. Rather, they evidence a tentativeness and exhibit tolerance on this point.

Since this topic often generates more heat than light among Christians, and since it is an excuse that certain secular forces in society use to justify rejecting Christianity, I suggest we should try to imitate the humility of those who have gone before us in the way of Christ.

(see also part 1 and part 2)

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Thought of the Day

Some people defend mentioning God on our currency and in the pledge of allegiance because they are merely historical references to our country's Christian foundation, and not an endorsement of a religious position. I'm not so sure. I would rather have such things banned because they mean something than allowed because they don't.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Please pray

for the people of Norway and the victims and their families in the aftermath of the horrific terrorist attack. Everyone thought that it must have been Muslim terrorists and some Muslim groups even tried to take credit for it. However, after a day or so it became clear that the person responsible was a Norwegian who described himself as a Christian and politically right-wing. When I heard the Christian claim I felt even more horrified than I already did. How could someone say they are a follower of the King of Life, the Prince of Peace, and then commit such horrific crimes? My revulsion has been slightly lessened -- and that may say something unfortunate about me -- as it is beginning to appear that his acts were more the product of his political views than his religious views. He was a nationalist, anti-Muslim, anti-multiculturalism right-wing zealot. Nevertheless, as a Christian I completely condemn these horrific actions of a man who has chosen to align himself with evil. He spit in the face of the very God he claims to worship.

One interesting thing is how this incident made people do abrupt reversals. Those who think Islam is inherently violent, and were pointing to this attack as further evidence, are now saying that we can't say that his political or religious beliefs had anything to do with it. Those who think Muslims are being persecuted in the West, and were insisting that we can't generalize from this attack to condemn Islam in general, are now saying that the attack was obviously the product of his right-wing politics and Christianity. Strange days.

Update (27 July): Sam Harris, one of the "new atheists" (a group I haven't paid attention to yet), finds some passages in the murderer's manifesto that make it difficult to say he was a devout or serious or (as some newspapers are saying) "fundamentalist" Christian. Here's the beginning of a longer quote:

I’m not going to pretend I’m a very religious person as that would be a lie. I’ve always been very pragmatic and influenced by my secular surroundings and environment.

Via KBJ. Again, I'm a little disconcerted by the fact that I'm somewhat relieved to hear this. As if it brings any of the victims -- mostly children -- back to life to know that he wasn't doing it in the name of Christianity.

Update: More from Sultan Knish:

Breivik described himself as not a religious person and mentions praying only once. His plans leading up to the attacks involved multiple visits to prostitutes. ... Breivik did call himself a Christian, but meant that in a cultural sense, rather than a theological one. He emphasized that he was not seeking a theocracy, but a secular society. His idea of a Christian Europe had nothing to do with religion.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Space News

I've really been slacking on keeping up to date with what's going on off-Earth. Here are a few tidbits.

1. As you may have heard, the Space Shuttle is kaput. Kaput is Russian for "we own space now". However, this opens the door for private enterprise to take over, and I'm cautiously optimistic about that. Rand Simburg even thinks private investors could potentially get to the Moon before China.

2. NASA is planning to send a new rover to Mars. Good idea. The plan is to search for the remains of life, which they are bound to discover since several million tons of this planet has been dumped on that planet over the last few billion years.

3. The Dawn spacecraft arrived in orbit around the asteroid Vesta a few days ago. Cool and groovy. Grool.

4. Considering how much I focused on it en route it's unfortunate that the arrival of the Messenger spacecraft in orbit around Mercury a few months ago went unnoticed here as it was during my recent brown-out.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Poster Boy

If you're interested in my posts I've added some interesting posts to my Posts of Interest post post hoc.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

I was told there would be no math myth

In two earlier posts I argued that the stories of Jesus in the New Testament cannot be explained (or explained away) as either mythological or as urban legend. I should clarify some of the issues involved as well as the difference between the two, bearing in mind that I'm not an expert.

Mythology has many elements to it, but here I'll focus on two. First, it develops over a long period of time. It's sometimes compared to the game of telephone, where one person whispers something in someone else's ear, the second person whispers to a third, etc. After several people, the story has become mangled. This, however, is incomplete. A closer parallel would be the same game where every third or fourth person has to say what he heard aloud, and allow himself to be corrected by the first person. So with mythology: it takes a long time for it to replace the original story because the original is still available and has more credibility.

The telephone game analogy suggests that mythology evolves slowly over time. It should be noted, however, that the inaccurate ideas may arise quickly. What takes a long time is the replacement of the original with the myth. The collective memory of the actual events simply takes a long time to dissipate. A. N. Sherwin-White argued in Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament that two or three generations was too short a time to have the original story replaced by a myth. Indeed, when it was first suggested in the 19th century that the accounts of Jesus in the Bible are mythological, it was assumed that none of them were written until the late 2nd century, since that's how long it would have taken for a myth of that magnitude to arise and be widely accepted. At least there aren't any known examples of it happening faster. Indeed, were this not the case, we would virtually have to abandon the field of ancient history, since almost no ancient historical writings were written close in time to the events they narrate. Since all but a few of the books of the New Testament are dated by scholars to within the first century, the time necessary for them to be mythological simply isn't there. In fact, there is no competing story other than the one found in the gospels until you get to the mid to late second century. As William Lane Craig writes:

The letters of Barnabus and Clement refer to Jesus’ miracles and resurrection. Polycarp mentions the resurrection of Christ, and Irenaeus relates that he had heard Polycarp tell of Jesus’ miracles. Ignatius speaks of the resurrection. Quadratus reports that persons were still living who had been healed by Jesus. Justin Martyr mentions the miracles of Christ. No relic of a nonmiraculous story exists. That the original story should be lost and replaced by another goes beyond any known example of corruption of even oral tradition, not to speak of the experience of written transmissions. These facts show that the story in the Gospels was in substance the same story that Christians had at the beginning. (emphasis mine)

A second element of mythology is that it functions as a literary genre. This is a very important point: as the story changes, so does the way it is told. To suggest that the ancients could have written mythology but not in the genre of mythological writings is simply incoherent; these were two aspects of one thing. It is only in the Modern era that we have classified these literary genres and how they function. So in order for someone in the ancient world to write a mythological story but not in the mythological genre is to suggest that he foresaw the development of Modern literary criticism and adjusted his style of writing in order to trick his future readers -- two millennia in the future -- into thinking that the stories he was telling were not mythological when they really were. This is about as conspiracy theory-ish as you can get without spontaneously combusting.

One aspect of the process of mythologization is that it tends to eliminate irrelevant details -- either by simply erasing them or by ascribing some meaning to them (thus eliminating their irrelevancy). In a myth, every element has a role to play, but historical writings record things that are "messy", that don't have some meaning to the overall story. The biblical accounts of Jesus are replete with such little details. Several times before Jesus would speak to people, Mark records him sighing deeply (7:34; 8:11-13) or gazing at them intently (3:5, 34; 10:23). When a crowd brings an adultress before Jesus, he stoops down and doodles in the dust with his finger (John 8:2-11). A few copies of the New Testament several centuries later tried to accommodate this by adding that Jesus wrote down the sins of the woman's accusers to show that they were not without sin. That's exactly how mythology works, by changing the details so that they have some relevance to the story.

Gregory Boyd gave several examples of this in John 20:1-8 in a letter he wrote to his non-Christian father, later published as Letters from a Skeptic (I should note that I disagree with Boyd on some of the points he makes here):

Early on the first day of the week (when? does it matter?), while it was still dark (who cares?), Mary Magdalene (an incriminating detail, see the next criteria) went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved (John's modest way of referring to himself -- another mark of genuineness) and said, "They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don't know where they have put him!" (note her lack of faith here) So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. They were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first (John's modesty again, but who cares about this irrelevant detail?). He bent over (the tomb entrance was low -- a detail which is historically accurate for tombs of wealthy people of the time -- the kind we know Jesus was buried in) and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in (why not? irrelevant detail). Then Simon Peter, who was behind him (modest repetition again), arrived and went into the tomb (Peter's boldness stands out in all the Gospel accounts). He saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the burial cloth that had been around Jesus' head (irrelevant detail -- what was Jesus wearing?). The cloth was folded up by itself, separate from the linen (could anything be more irrelevant, and more unusual, than this, Dad? Jesus folded one part of His wrapping before He left!). Finally the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went inside (who cares about what exact order they went in?).

The presence of little details like this should not be understood as absolute. Fully mythological stories can have irrelevant details, and historical writings can show how little details were actually relevant to what was going on. The point is that in general, the more such details there are, the less mythologized the story is. This gives us the ability to test how far along the mythologization process a story is.

Here's a non-biblical example: The Voyage of Saint Brendan is an early medieval text describing an Irish monk who built a small leather boat and, essentially, sailed it around the North Atlantic Ocean. Tim Severin, in The Brendan Voyage, relates how his wife, an expert in medieval literature, thought that The Voyage of Saint Brendan was a partially mythologized story of something that actually happened.

"There's something odd about the Saint Brendan text," remarked my wife Dorothy one evening. Her casual comment immediately caught my attention.

"What do you mean by 'odd'?" I asked her.

"The text doesn't match up with much of the other literature written at about the same time. The best way to explain it is that it doesn't have the same feel. It's a curiosity. ... The story has a remarkable amount of practical detail, far more than most early medieval texts. It tells you about the geography of the places Brendan visits. It carefully describes the progress of the voyage, the times and distances, and so forth. It seems to me that the text is not so much a legend as a tale that is embroidering a first-hand experience."

Severin decided to build a leather boat out of the same material that would have been available in that particular part of Ireland at that particular time and sail it across the North Atlantic (à la Kon-Tiki). Not only did he successfully sail from Ireland to North America (via the Faroes and Iceland), he learned that a leather boat had great advantages over wooden ones: at one point, they struck an iceberg strong enough that it would have punched a hole in a wooden boat, big enough to sink it. A leather boat, however, can be sewn up en route.

Anyway, the point is that no scholar has ever suggested that the gospels are written in the genre of mythology. Those who have argued that they are mythological (primarily in the late 19th century) said they should be understood this way despite the genre in which they are written. In fact, this is so blatant, so screamingly obvious, that you can verify it yourself: simply read the gospels side-by-side with actual mythological writings -- not modern retellings of mythological stories, but the actual myths themselves. It's obvious that they're not in the same genre. Until fairly recently, it's been a contentious point what genre the gospels belong to, other than that they were roughly historical writings. But in the last few decades, scholars have accepted that they are written in the genre of ancient biography, similar to Diogenes Laërtius's Lives of the Eminent Philosophers. As I pointed out here, that doesn't mean that they are historically accurate in every detail, but it certainly makes it very difficult to claim that they are inaccurate in their central claims.

I've spent an inordinate amount of time on mythology. Urban legend is simpler: it basically lacks many of these elements. An urban legend is not based on a long process of mythologization but on someone telling a false story. Thus, in contrast with actual mythology, urban legends do not replace the original story, they are, in a sense, competing with it. Having said that, urban legends are similar to mythology in that they will often lack the irrelevant details that we find in veridical accounts. Urban legends are trying to make a point, and so simply ignore the details that don't play a role in this. In my post on this, I argue that the people who originated an urban legend either a) simply made it up (i.e. they lied); b) hallucinated; c) experienced something they mistook for something else (such as nondescript lights in the sky which are mistaken for alien spacecraft); or d) were insane (didn't really experience anything, but now actually think they did). The biblical accounts of Jesus cannot fit into any of these categories. Rather than rehearse them here, I'll just commend you to my earlier post.

Incidentally, if you haven't read The Brendan Voyage, I strongly recommend it.

(cross-posted at Quodlibeta)

Quote of the Day

Let us suppose for a moment that the harder virtues could really be theoretically justified with no appeal to objective value. It still remains true that no justification of virtue will enable a man to be virtuous. Without the aid of trained emotions the intellect is powerless against the animal organism. I had sooner play cards against a man who was quite sceptical about ethics, but bred to believe that 'a gentleman does not cheat', than against an irreproachable moral philosopher who had been brought up among sharpers. In battle it is not syllogisms that will keep the reluctant nerves and muscles to their post in the third hour of the bombardment. The crudest sentimentalism (such as Gaius and Titius would wince at) about a flag or a country or a regiment will be of more use. We were told it all long ago by Plato. As the king governs by his executive, so Reason in man must rule the mere appetites by means of the 'spirited element'. The head rules the belly through the chest -- the seat, as Alanus tells us, of Magnanimity, of emotions organized by trained habit into stable sentiments. The Chest -- Magnanimity -- Sentiment -- these are the indispensable liaison officers between cerebral man and visceral man. It may even be said that it is by this middle element that man is man: for by his intellect he is mere spirit and by his appetite mere animal.

The operation of The Green Book and its kind is to produce what may be called Men without Chests. It is an outrage that they should be commonly spoken of as Intellectuals. This gives them the chance to say that he who attacks them attacks Intelligence. It is not so. They are not distinguished from other men by any unusual skill in finding truth nor any virginal ardour to pursue her. Indeed it would be strange if they were: a persevering devotion to truth, a nice sense of intellectual honour, cannot be long maintained without the aid of a sentiment which Gaius and Titius could debunk as easily as any other. It is not excess of thought but defect of fertile and generous emotion that marks them out. Their heads are no bigger than the ordinary: it is the atrophy of the chest beneath that makes them seem so.

And all the time -- such is the tragi-comedy of our situation -- we continue to clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. You can hardly open a periodical without coming across the statement that what our civilization needs is more 'drive', or dynamism, or self-sacrifice, or 'creativity'. In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.

C. S. Lewis
The Abolition of Man
(footnotes omitted)

Wednesday, July 6, 2011


This is infuriating. I have some sympathy for those who don't want the government to give to charity for us (i.e. welfare) because that is a responsibility we should not delegate to others, much less to a bureaucracy. But for government to actively prevent people from feeding the poor is just abominable. Via Ann Althouse.

Friday, July 1, 2011


In the comments to this post are several essays and books by C. S. Lewis that are available to read online. I knew about a few of them, but there's a lot more than I realized. Via Victor Reppert.