Wednesday, July 10, 2013

So long, and thanks for all the fish...

I regret to inform long term readers that this blog will be retired as of today. I will not be contributing any new content to this site, although I will preserve the domain and content. But why, one may ask, am I doing this?

Well... when I started this blog I was still a na├»ve teenager. I've refined many of my views as the years passed, reading more material and dialoguing with more people. Hell, if you followed me for long enough you probably noticed the differing quality between my earlier and later posts. So, after much reflection, I came to the conclusion that this blog could no longer accurately represent me.

Before you start speculating, I should clarify that I am still an atheist and skeptic just like before. I didn't start believing in Christianity, or magical psychic powers, or truther conspiracy theories, or Pleiadian water alien things. To put it succinctly... it's not that the content of my views have changed, but rather that my reasoning has. For instance, my earlier posts included vague concepts like "group hallucinations", which look kinda amateurish to me now a days. Without further elaboration, I'll just point out that most teenagers aren't quite as smart as adults.

On the up side, none of this removes the possibility of me blogging in the future with a new blog. In fact, much to your (possible) delight, that is exactly what I've done! I've created a new blog, tentatively titled "Andyman409's blog" where I will continue to blog about things that interest me. I hope to see you all there!

Monday, December 10, 2012

A shout out to "The Big Picture" blog

I don't typically promote other peoples blogs, but for this one I'll make an exception. Here is the link, if anyone's interested. I'll try to get it to appear under the "blogs I follow" section later.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Elves in Iceland

This article from the wonderful Austin Cline made my day. Cite it next time you debate a Christian!

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

How many professors believe in the Paranormal?

Want to know? Click here to find out! It's my first entry on the James Randi Educational Foundation fourm! Whenever I add something new, I'll be sure to cross post it!

Sunday, September 30, 2012

A response to Gerald O'Collins

In this post, I will respond to the arguments Gerald O'Collins gives against the Hallucination hypothesis from the appendix of his book Believing in the Resurrection: The Meaning and Promise of the Risen Jesus. I have mentioned them before here. Unlike Habermas, O'Collins is actually familiar with the phenomenon of bereavement experiences, and so his critique is much more relevant.

O'Collins starts by summarising Dewi Rees' study of Bereavement experiences in senior widows and widowers:

Rees found that close to half (46.7%) reported contact with their beloved dead at various times during waking hours; dreams were not considered in the study.  The bereaved had “felt the presence of the deceased” (39.2%), “seen” them (14%), “heard” them (13.3%), “spoken” to them (11.6%), and, very occasionally, been “touched” by them (2.7%). Some of the widows and widowers interviewed reported having had more than one type of experience, and in 36.1% of all the cases these experiences of the beloved dead lasted for years.

Than, he pointed out two similarities between Bereavement experiences and the supposed Resurrection appearances of Jesus:

first, the grief experienced by both Rees’ bereaved persons and the disciples after the death and burial of Jesus... A second addition that I now make to the analogy proposed by Rees concerns the unexpected nature of the encounters with the risen Jesus

I agree with him that these are some fairly striking points of similarity. However, despite the shoe fitting finely, O'Collins argues that the parallels end here, and proposes eight areas of dissimilarity between these bereavement experiences and the Resurrection appearances of Jesus. I will review each of them below.

Area's of dissimilarity
The first area of dissimilarity is that Dewi Rees' bereavement study only considered Widows and Widowers: as far as we know, Mary and the disciples were not married to Jesus.

1) By naming “the disciples,” what I had in mind was, first of all, the fact that the Twelve and others, both women (e.g., Mary Magdalene) and men (e.g., Cleopas of Luke 24: 13-35), were disciples and not married partners of Jesus.

He also adds that the disciples made radical claims about Jesus, and that this somehow acts as an additional dissimilarity. This argument is weak, since it ignores the many stories of non widows having supposed encounters with the deceased. Besides, if these bereavement experiences are hallucinations, something which I will argue for in the future, than there is no reason to suppose they would be exclusive to widows. I can imagine widows and widowers being more likely to hallucinate their loved ones, but that's it. The second argument is equally poor:

2)  Jesus died a horrible and utterly shameful death on a public scaffold. In the eyes of his contemporaries, the crucifixion involved being cursed not only by human beings (the religious and political authorities responsible for his execution) but also by God... Rees reports no cases of anything like that among his 293 widows and widowers.

Well, we do live in the 21 century; not very many are cursed and publicly executed. Some of the widows Rees interviewed did have spouses that were killed by accidents, which I think suffice as "violent deaths". O'Collins, however, needs to prove his point, so he declares that only a perfect analogy will do. I think he forgot where the burden of proof lies.

3) A third, enormous difference emerges from the fact that, unlike the disciples of Jesus, none of Rees’s widows and widowers ever alleged that their beloved departed had been raised from the dead

Oh come on! Even Licona acknowledges that this is a poor argument (see the appendix of The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical approach). At any rate, there aren't very many people in the modern day that believe in corporeal resurrection, so the lack of modern day analogies shouldn't be surprising. At any rate, modern widows and widowers would probably say their spouse became a ghost or went to heaven, since those are the modern day expectations. The resurrection was an ancient expectation, even if it was supposed to occur at the end of the world.

4) A fourth reason for differentiating between the Easter experiences of the disciples and Rees’s widows and widowers emerges from the New Testament reports about appearances to groups, as well as to individuals

This argument is interesting, since he actually criticizes a lot of the Apparitional literature Allison uses to make his case.

On the question of bereaved people experiencing (or not experiencing) as a group some beloved, deceased person, Allison (who knows and values Rees’ ground-breaking research)  has also taken issue with me. He claims that there are “many firsthand accounts of several people seeing at once the apparition of a person recently deceased.” But he cites no examples and gives no references. Notice that he does not say “bereaved people” having such an experience, and that is the issue. Is he thinking of parapsychology and alleged cases of the spirits of the deceased being brought back from the dead through mediums? But many scholars, including professional psychologists, find only pseudo-science in the works of parapsychologists. In fact, Allison himself observes: “reports of collective apparitions are…prominent in the literature of parapsychology but not in normal psychology.” That silence on the part of professional psychologists might have warned Allison not to introduce, as he does, repeated references to a number of long-discredited parapsychologists.

Allison himself is very forthright about the lack of rigor in many of his cases. As a matetr of fact, he clearly states that he is comparing "like with like" when he uses them, since the Gospels are also equally poor sources. I concede, however, that I don't quite know how to explain the group experiences in naturalistic terms. After all, I don't even know what goes back to the eyewitnesses! Our earliest source, 1 cor 15, gives us three group experiences: one to "the twelve", one to the "five hundred", and one to "all the apostles". By the time we reach the gospels, however, the appearance to"the twelve" is all that remains. How one explains this one naturally depends on how accurate you think the narrative is.

5) A fifth dissimilarity arises when we notice that around 40% of Rees’ widows and widowers continued to experience their deceased spouses for many years. But the appearances of the risen Jesus to individuals or groups took place over a limited period of time and did not continue for years.

How do we know what they would've made of later experiences? Apologists often argue that the initial experiences must of been qualitatively different from later ones, since the early church called them "appearances" instead of visions. However, this still doesn't tell us exactly how they were different? Perhaps the difference between appearances and visions had to do with whom had them, or when they occurred. How could one prove these suggestions wrong? Furthermore, according to Licona, word studies don't help either, as the greek word for "appearance" could mean many things. So, even if the disciples had later experiences, how would we know?

6) “one difference between the Easter experiences and those reported by the widowed…Widowed  people’s experiences of their dead spouses tend to occur weeks  or months after the person’s death; in contrast, Jesus appeared to his friends soon after the crucifixion.

Depends how you define "soon". A few weeks doesn't seem too long to me. At any rate, how do we even know when the disciples started having their experiences? The phrease "the third day" was an idiom that could refer to any short period of time, not just 3 literal days. Another issue is whether the experiences all happened within a short period of time. What if some occurred weeks or months later than others? After all, the creed Paul refers to in 1 Cor 15 includes the appearance to himself, which occurred years after Jesus was crucified. We just don't know how much time passed between appearances.

(7) Prior to Rees’ study, only 27.7 % of the bereaved who experienced their dead spouses had mentioned these experiences to others

This is really weak. Did O'Collins forget the stigma that is associated with hallucinating in the modern day?

8) In Easter Faith I pointed out an eighth difference: unlike the first followers of Jesus, “none of those whose bereavement experiences are reported by Rees dramatically changed their lifestyle and became missionaries proclaiming to the world their experience and what it implied.”

O'Collins got so desperate for another pot-shot that he re-used the seventh point. Again, in the modern day there is a stigma against having wierd experiences. In ancient times, no such stigma existed. The problem wasn't whether you saw something- it was how you interpreted it. This, if anything, was the problem the disciples would have had.

Well, there you have it. For what it's worth, I'm still offering a copy of the paper to anyone who wants it. Conact me here for it.

Mike Licona's doctoral dissertation

Well, the good part anyways. You can read it here.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

A point by point rebuttal of Gary Habermas

I apologize for not posting anything for a while. As a special treat, I wrote a point by point rebuttal to Gary Habermas' essay "Explaining away Jesus' Resurrection: The Recent Revival of Hallucination Theories". The full essay can be found here. Since Habermas is frequently considered the world wide expert on the Resurrection, I figure he'll have the best arguments. The first batch of arguments specifically oppose the idea of group hallucinations.

Group Hallucinations

(1) To begin, the chief examples of "collective hallucinations" provided by Zusne and Jones were group religious experiences such as Marion apparitions. But these citations simply beg the question regarding whether such experiences could possibly be objective, or even supernatural, at least in some sense. 

Why is it okay for Christians to assume that every miracle of every Religion comes from either the Christian God or Satan? Why not from Krishna or the demon king Ravana? This is a classic "heads I win, tails you lose" scenario.

(2) Further, the collective hallucination thesis is unfalsifiable. It could be applied to purely natural, group sightings, simply calling them group hallucinations, too. On this thesis, crucial epistemic criteria seem to be missing. How do we determine normal occurrences from group hallucinations?

Why do we have to be able to tell the difference? The burden is on him to show they aren't group hallucination, not me. At any rate, I assume we could tell whether or not a group shared the same hallucination by interviewing each person and asking them what they saw. The fact that all the witnesses are dead in Jesus' case is his problem, not mine.

(3) Even if it could be established that groups of people witnessed hallucinations, it is critical to note that it does not at all follow that these experiences were therefore collective. If, as most psychologists assert, hallucinations are private, individual events, then how could groups share exactly the same subjective visual perception? Rather, it is much more likely that the phenomena in question are either illusions--perceptual misinterpretations of actual realities -- or individual hallucinations.

As it happens, I also doubt that multiple people can share the exact same hallucination. For the first time, we're in agreement. I also agree that so called cases of group hallucinations are better explained as either individual ones or illusions. Sadly, Habermas never explains how this exactly counters the Hallucination thesis. If anything, it gives us skeptics more ammunition!

(4) For instance, Zusne and Jones argue that "expectation" and "emotional excitement" are "prerequisites" before such group experiences will occur. In fact, expectation "plays the coordinating role." But this scenario contradicts the emotional state of the early witnesses of Jesus' resurrection appearances. Even psychologically, the early believers were confronted face-to-face with the utter realism of the recent and unexpected death of their best friend, whom they had hoped would rescue Israel. As those recent events unfolded in a whirlwind of Jesus' physical beatings, crucifixion, and seeming abandonment, the normal response would be fear, disillusionment, and depression. To suppose that these believers would exhibit "expectation" and "emotional excitement" in the face of these stark circumstances would require of them responses that would scarcely be exhibited at a funeral! All indications are that Jesus' disciples would exhibition the very opposite emotions from what Zusne and Jones convey as the necessary requirement.

As Dale Allison has stated before, this only applies to the first Christophany. Surely Peter or Mary created some excitement and expectation after their initial experience. Furthermore, what if Jesus really did predict his death and resurrection? That would certainly create a lot of expectation.

By comparison, the disciples' experience is totally unlike those in the other cases above where pilgrims expressly traveled long distances, exuberantly gathering with the explicit desire to see something special. There would seem to be very meager grounds of comparison here with Jesus' disciples.

We don't know that. We don't know anything about the original Christophanies or the circumstances leading up to them. Even if we were to take the Gospels at face value, we'd still know nothing about the appearance to "the five hundred" or to "all the apostles". As I pointed out before, we don't even know whether Jesus made any pre-Easter predictions. There's meager grounds for comparison since there's nothing to compare!

Many other crucial problems also plague the thesis of group hallucinations, and we will pursue several more below. But for now we will repeat that Zusne and Jones never attempt to apply their approach to Jesus' resurrection. Rather, they even rather incredibly close their examination with the admission that group hallucinations have a "dubious status" because it is not possible to ascertain whether these individuals were actually even hallucinating!

Re-read my critique of #3. Habermas seriously has no clue where the burden of proof lies. Anyways, the second batch of arguments have to do with conversion disorder. These ones are a bit more persuasive.

Conversion disorder

(1) Initially, only Paul is known to have manifested any such symptoms, so Goulder's inclusion of the others is not factually grounded.

Not surprisingly, he is relying too much on the texts. How do we know what state of mind Peter or Paul was in? We don't, unless we rely on the gospels to give us an accurate psychological analysis. But can we really do this? After all, present expectations shape past memories- and the Gospels are filled with present expectations.

(2) Simply a huge problem is that, from what we know about Paul and James in particular, there were no mitigating grounds to suppose such a disorder. We have no indication that there was the slightest inner conflict, doubt, or guilt concerning their previous rejection of Jesus' teachings. Critics agree that James was an unbeliever during Jesus' earthly ministry (John 7:5; cf. Mark 3:21). Paul's skepticism is even better known, since he persecuted early Christians (1 Cor. 15:9; Gal. 1:13, 23). But we do not know of any guilt on Paul's part, for he considered his actions to have been both zealous and faultless (Phil. 3:4-6). In short, there is no indication of any desire for conversion by either of these men. To suppose otherwise is groundless. In short, these men are exceptionally poor candidates for this disorder.

This point is valid, but stretched too thin. Yes, James was probably an unbeliever during Jesus' ministry. Does this mean he converted due to a christophany of his brother? Perhaps, but until we find a reliable narrative of the event, we can only speculate. Perhaps he did feel guilty for rejecting his brother? Or maybe he was predisposed to hallucinate simply because Jesus was his brother and he loved him as such. Paul's experience occurred a year or more after the crucifixion, so I can't say much about it. It seems to me that, within a years time, anyone can go from skeptic to believer.

(3) Further, the psychological profile strongly opposes an application to any of these three apostles. Conversion disorder most frequently occurs to women (up to five times more often), adolescents and young adults, less-educated persons, those with low IQ's, low socioeconomic status, or combat personnel.  Not a single characteristic applies to Peter, Paul, or James.

If conversion disorder occurs five times more often in women than men, that means it STILL APPEARS IN MEN!!! What more needs to be said?

(4-5) Further, holding that victims of conversion disorder are strong candidates for both visual and auditory hallucinations is stretching the case a bit. These are uncommon characteristics. Not only are these apostles poor candidates for the disorder in the first place, but even apart from this malady, they were additionally not predisposed to experience hallucinations. And here we even have two separate critiques, due to very different sets of circumstances. There is no indication that either James or Paul, in particular, longed to see Jesus. Their unbelief is a poor basis for producing hallucinations! James the skeptic and Paul the persecutor are exceptionally tough obstacles for the hallucination thesis! Once again, to say otherwise is mere conjecture apart from historical data.

To repeat the point I made in #2, we don't know much about the psychological profile of James. Even if he were a skeptic, it doesn't follow he'd be less likely to hallucinate Jesus. After all, they were family, and family members are the ones who most often experience these bereavement experiences.

(6) Neither does this hypothesis account for what would otherwise be considered delusions of grandeur--in this case the apostles' belief that God had imparted to them a message for the entire world that others must accept. But it is unlikely that there are other delusions involved here, even occurring at precisely the same time, so the case is further weakened.

Christianity isn't the only religion to claim it has a divine message. As a matter of fact, I think the vast majority of supernatural religions make this claim. At any rate, people come to believe weird stuff all the time. Just read this list of people that claimed to be Jesus. You can't just say "this belief is weird, therefore, God did it"- there would be far too many strange, obscure cults to choose between. The last part of Habermas' essay deals with regular, good old fashioned individual hallucinations.

Individual Hallucinations

(1) Even individual hallucinations are questionable for any believers who felt despair at the unexpected death of Jesus just hours before. Their hopes and dreams had suddenly been dashed. Extreme grief, not exuberance, would be the normal response.

As I've pointed out before, the bereaved do occasionally have experiences of their deceased loved ones. Ludemann pointed this out in his book so, unless Habermas never read it, he has taken to ignoring it.

(2) The wide variety of times and places when Jesus appeared, along with the differing mindsets of the witnesses, is simply a huge obstacle. Men and women, hard-headed and soft-hearted alike, all believing that they saw Jesus, both indoors and outdoors, by itself provides an insurmountable barrier for hallucinations. The odds that each person would be in precisely the proper frame of mind to experience a hallucination, even individually, decrease exponentially.

What is this "wide variety of times and places"? Last I checked, 1 Cor. 15 gives us a grand total of six christophanies, one of which occurs a year after the others. Furthermore, it includes an appearance to "five hundred brothers" and to "all the apostles" that are never elaborated on and vanish by the time the Gospels were written. If Habermas knows the insurmountable circumstances these visions occurred in, he should've included them.

(3) Generally, hallucinations do not transform lives. Studies have argued that even those who hallucinate often (or perhaps usually) disavow the experiences when others present have not seen the same thing. Critics acknowledge that Jesus' disciples were transformed even to the point of being quite willing to die for their faith. No early text reports that any of them ever recanted. To believe that this quality of conviction came about through false sensory perceptions without anyone rejecting it later is highly problematic.

We live in the modern day, remember? Visions are no longer culturally acceptable. Rees himself notes the apprehensiveness of his subjects to share their experiences due to a fear of being called crazy. Contrast this with ancient times, where visions where accepted and even encouraged. On a final note, we don't know whether the disciples stuck it out for life.

(4) Of course, if the appearances were hallucinations, then Jesus' body should have been located safely and securely in its grave just outside the city of Jerusalem! That body would undoubtedly be a rather large disclaimer to the disciples' efforts to preach that Jesus was raised! But hallucinations do not even address this, so another naturalistic thesis is required.

So what if another naturalistic explanation is needed? Why couldn't a rival Jewish sect or a necromancer steal the body? If not, than why couldn't the church make it up?

(5) Why did the hallucinations stop after 40 days? Why didn't they continue to spread to other believers, just as the others had? 

Probably because most bereavement experiences only last a set amount of time before disappearing. While it is true that about a third linger for several years, not all follow this pattern.

(6) The resurrection was the disciples' central teaching, and we usually take extra care with what is closest to our hearts. This is what drove Paul to check out the nature of the gospel data with other key disciples on at least two occasions, to make sure he was preaching the truth (Gal. 1:18-19; 2:1-10). He found that they were also speaking of Jesus' appearances to them (1 Cor. 15:11).

Yeah right, tell that to the Mormons who followed Joseph Smith unquestionably, never once asking to see the plates. This is Special pleading.

(7) What about the natural human tendency to touch? Would no one ever discover, even in a single instance, that their best friend, seemingly standing perhaps just a few feet away, was not really there?

Perhaps just a few feet away... what if Jesus was seen several yards away? We'd need reliable accounts of Jesus' resurrection appearances before we can claim that all the disciples saw Jesus simultaneously "just a few feet away".

(8) The resurrection of an individual contradicted general Jewish theology, which held to a corporate event at the end of time. So Jesus' resurrection did not fit normal Jewish expectations.

Neither did Joseph Smith's plates of gold, or a myriad of other wacky religious claims. A persons deviation from the norm can hardly be counted as evidence for anything. However, even if we were to assume the disciples were too dense to invent anything new, it is still possible that Jesus' own teaching were the basis of their wacky belief. It all depends on whether or not you think Jesus really predicted his own death and resurrection. If this is the case, it would be a self fulfilling prophecy.

(9) Lastly, hallucinations of the extended sort required by this naturalistic theory are fairly rare phenomena, chiefly occurring in certain circumstances that militate against Jesus' disciples being the recipients.

What does "extended sort" mean? Is he suggesting that the Gospel accounts are accurate? If so, than how accurate? Accurate enough so determine the length of the experiences? What about the sporadic nature of 1 Cor. 15, as well as other Gospel accounts? Habermas will have to elaborate on what he means by "extended sort".

Well, those are Habermas' arguments against the Hallucination thesis. He has published many books and essays on the Resurrection, but none are as comprehensive as this essay (he references it in every one of his books I've read). If you got anything to add, send me a message!