Stephen Law and the existence of Jesus

Stephen Law’s paper Evidence, miracles and the existence of Jesus argues that the New Testament (NT) is not good evidence for the existence of Jesus. He takes an interesting approach: he argues that the evidence for the NT miracles isn’t good enough, and that the presence of the miracle stories contaminates the non-miraculous parts of the story such that we should be sceptical of those too.

Law introduces and defends two principles:

P1 Where a claim’s justification derives solely from evidence, extraordinary claims (e.g. concerning supernatural miracles) require extraordinary evidence. In the absence of extraordinary evidence there is good reason to be sceptical about those claims.

and

P2 Where testimony/documents weave together a narrative that combines mundane claims with a significant proportion of extraordinary claims, and there is good reason to be sceptical about those extraordinary claims, then there is good reason to be sceptical about the mundane claims, at least until we possess good independent evidence of their truth.

He then uses these in a deductive argument, concluding that “there’s good reason to be sceptical about whether Jesus existed”.

Debating P2

Most of the debate in the comments on Law’s blog is about P2. Law says that “Because once we know that a powerful, false-testimony-producing mechanism (or combination of mechanisms) may well have produced a significant chunk of a narrative (e.g. the miraculous parts), we can no longer be confident that the same mechanism is not responsible for what remains.”

Bradley C. came up with some counter-examples to P2. Bradley rightly says that the false-testimony-producing mechanism is key. What feels different about the ancient miracle reports (and perhaps Law’s “sixth islander” thought experiment) compared to Bradley’s examples is that in the ancient reports, we don’t really know what the mechanism was, we just know something has gone wrong. (In Bradley’s examples, we know that magicians and faith healers do tricks). If we don’t know quite what has gone wrong, we have to consider various possible mechanisms, which includes ones where the mundane testimony is also false. If we give such mechanisms any weight, that makes the mundane testimony less convincing (though it may still be positive evidence for the mundane events). But I think we’d have to consider how much weight to give them based on the circumstances, which makes it hard to come up with something general like P2.

So, I think Bradley’s come up with the equivalent of Gettier cases for P2 as it stands: even if they’re contrived, they show P2 needs changing.

Law responds to Bradley saying “You need to identify a mechanism as being the likely mechanism accounting for the false miracle claims, and then explain why that mechanism wouldn’t quite likely result in false mundane claims too.”

I don’t agree with Law here. If all we know is that something’s gone wrong with the testimony but the mechanism is obscure, perhaps it’s reasonable to say that it’s as likely that we’d have the testimony if it’s mundane parts were true as it is that we’d have it if the mundane parts were false. Then the testimony is no evidence for or against the mundane events: you should consider the events as likely as you did before you heard the testimony.

I’m not sure I’d want to go further than that and say that the burden of proof is on the people who believe the mundane portion of the testimony to show why it isn’t contaminated: mightn’t they equally well argue that the burden is on you to show that it is? But that’s what P2 says, I think: in P2, the testimony becomes evidence against the mundane events.

If you give a mechanism, though, maybe that’s just what you can argue: if you think Jesus’ disciples made it up, for example, who’s to say where the made up stuff ends? (Though why not make stuff up based on a real person, for verisimilitude?)

It looks like someone who wants to justify their belief in the mundane stuff has a motive to push the unbeliever to identify the mechanism so they can criticise it. The problem with my “average over possible mechanisms” idea, above, is that it’s pretty hard to identify them all. I don’t think we have a duty to do that with every weird testimony, though. Earlier, in defence of P1, Law correctly says that “the fact that it remains blankly mysterious why such reports would be made if they were not true does not provide us with very much additional reason to suppose that they are true.”

So, I’m not that convinced by Law’s general contamination principle, but I think he makes some good points along the way. For example, Law says:

It would also be foolish to try to construct a two part case for Jesus’ miraculous resurrection by (i) bracketing the miraculous parts of the Gospel narrative and using what remains to build a case for the truth of certain non-miraculous claims (about Jesus’ crucifixion, the empty tomb, and so on), and then (ii) using these supposedly now “firmly established facts” to argue that Jesus’ miraculous resurrection is what best explains them (yet several apologetic works – e.g. Frank Morrison’s Who Moved The Stone? – appear implicitly to rely on this strategy).



William Lane Craig’s rebuttal

The apologetical strategy Law talks about is used by William Lane Craig in his “4 facts” defence of the resurrection (see Craig vs Ehrman, for example). Craig read Law’s paper and attempted a rebuttal on his own blog, which I think was only partially successful.

Craig’s stuff about Ehrman is weird. I guess Craig’s point here is to show how reasonable he’s being by pointing out that even this bloke he beat in a debate (Ehrman) agrees with him. But Ehrman is not a radical sceptic, Law is not die-hard mythicist. The conclusion of Law’s argument is that we should be sceptical about J’s existence, not “Therefore J never existed”, so it’s not even clear that Ehrman’s ire applies to Law, or that we should care if it does, unless Ehrman’s arguments are made more explicit.

On Sagan’s dictum that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”, Craig writes: “This sounds so commonsensical, doesn’t it? But in fact it is demonstrably false. … Rather what’s crucial is the probability that we should have the evidence we do if the extraordinary event had not occurred. This can easily offset any improbability of the event itself.”

Craig makes a reasonable statement of Bayes Theorem. However, Sagan’s dictum can be read in a Bayesian way (by incorporating all the probabilities Craig mentions, so that the evidence is Bayesian evidence). Craig gives no good argument that the dictum must mean what Craig takes it to mean, or that Law’s argument relies on taking it to mean what Craig thinks it means.

Craig continues: “In the case of the resurrection of Jesus, for example, this means that we must also ask, “What is the probability of the facts of the empty tomb, the post-mortem appearances, and the origin of the disciples’ belief in Jesus’ resurrection, if the resurrection had not occurred?” It is highly, highly, highly, improbable that we should have that evidence if the resurrection had not occurred.”

This might be Craig’s attempt at that argument, namely, Craig saying that Law hasn’t considered that it’s unlikely we’d have the evidence we do if Jesus didn’t do miracles. But Craig plays fast and loose: the facts are that we have the gospel narratives (and whatever other historical documents we have to hand). The empty tomb and post-mortem appearances are not facts, and Law’s argument against the “bracketing” strategy is that they cannot be treated as facts. Craig cannot have the empty tomb or the post-mortem appearances as “facts” without addressing Law’s arguments.

Oddly, Craig doesn’t address really P2 or Law’s arguments for it at all: he just says “oh no it isn’t”. Craig’s strongest when he says that there is extra-Biblical evidence for Jesus’ existence. I’m not an expert, but my understanding is that Josephus’ mentions of Jesus is thought by historians to have a core around which Christian interpolations accreted, for example. Since even if we grant P2, Law’s argument fails without premise 6 (“There is no good independent evidence for even the mundane claims about Jesus (such as that he existed)”), perhaps this is a good tactic on Craig’s part. Law appears to agree that premise 6 is his weakest empirical premise: “6 is at the very least debatable”. In a way, it’s odd that everyone is concentrating on P2.

So, I think Craig casts doubt on Law’s conclusion about Jesus’ existence, but he doesn’t do much to convince us that Jesus rose from the dead or did any other miracles.

Jerry Coyne’s blog has some good comments on Craig’s rebuttal.

David B Marshall’s rebuttal

David Marshall also had a go at rebutting Law. He didn’t do as well as Craig, as his arguments relied on attempts to differentiate Law’s thought experiments (“Ted and Sarah”, and “The Sixth Islander”) from the claims about Jesus, but the distinctions he made between these, distinguishing magic from miracles, weren’t relevant to Law’s arguments, as far as I can tell. You can see my response to him here , his reply here and my response to that here, another attempt by Marshall here and my final response here.

I think this rebuttal is interesting for what it shows about what ordinary believers (rather than super-apologists like Craig) think are good arguments. Marshall appears to think that because the Jesus story is more fleshed out and more meaningful, it’s more likely to be true. I’m not sure whether this is a straightforward example of conjuction bias (obligatory Less Wrong link), or of the notion that the point of religion is to be in a meaningful story. Charitably, it might be an attempt at inference to the best explanation, but I don’t think the stuff that Marshall mentions means that the best explanation of the NT stories is that they are true.

So what do you think?

There was bloke called Jesus who was the basis of the NT stories. Pre-moderns had porous selves, so it’s pretty difficult to understand their writings in modern terms, but there is no good evidence that this bloke did miracles or rose from the dead. I don’t know how much of the NT is true, but I don’t accept Craig’s bracketing or 4 facts arguments: taking out the core miracle but leaving the context which points to a miracle does look like cheating without independent evidence of the context, because mechanisms where both the context and miracle are made up seem pretty likely to me.

Bad arguments about religion: faith and evidence

There’s an atheist bad argument which runs something like this: “Faith is believing stuff without evidence, believing stuff without evidence is always bad, therefore faith is bad”.

This seems reasonable at first, but sooner or later you meet a William Lane Craig or similar apologist type, as Jerry Coyne did recently:

Craig argues that science itself is permeated with assumptions about the world that cannot be scientifically justified, but are based on faith. One of these is the validity of inductive reasoning: “Just because A has always been followed by B every time in the past is no proof at all that A will be followed by B tomorrow.” To suppose the latter requires faith.

According to Coyne, as well as the problem of induction, Craig mentions last-Thursday-ism and the idea that we’re all in the Matrix as beliefs that we reject on faith. Some of commenters on Coyne’s blog react as if Craig is advocating these ideas that we all reject, that is, as if he really thinks that the Sun might not rise tomorrow or that we’re in the clutches of a cartesiandaemon. But that’s not Craig’s point. Nor is Craig being inconsistent if he gets on an aeroplane assuming that the laws of physics will carry on working as they always have to keep it flying. After all, he’s not the one claiming that it’s always wrong to believe things without evidence.

The problem here, which makes the atheist’s argument a bad one, is that the atheist has cast their net too broadly. Craig is right to say that there are things that atheists (and everyone else) believe “on faith”. To say that these beliefs are always unwarranted leaves the atheist open to Craig’s counter-argument that, to be consistent, the atheist should then discard those beliefs or admit that it’s not always wrong to believe things without evidence.

Doing better

Nevertheless, something has gone wrong with Craig’s argument if it’s supposed to be a defence of religious faith (as all Craig’s arguments ultimately are). Religious faith is different from belief in induction or the existence of an external world. The atheist should abandon the claim that unevidenced beliefs are always bad, and concentrate on the distinction between religious beliefs and, say, the belief that the external world is real.

One way of doing that would be to turn Craig’s allegation of inconsistency back on him. As Chris Hallquist puts it

belief in the Christian God isn’t very much at all like most of the common-sense beliefs commonly cited as threatened by Descartes & Hume-style skepticism (like belief in the reliability of our senses), but is an awful lot like beliefs most Christians wouldn’t accept without evidence – namely, the beliefs of other religions.

The atheist’s discomfort is now the apologist’s: either he must accept that, say, Muslims or Scientologists are right to take things on faith (in which case, why not join up with them instead?); or further distinguish his religion from theirs (probably by making arguments about the resurrection of Jesus). The atheist’s acceptance of the real world doesn’t come into it.

Hume’s own solution to radical scepticism was to note that he couldn’t entertain that sort of thing for long. Creatures like us soon fall unavoidably back on treating other people as if they were conscious, the world as if it were real, and so on. The great man tells us:

Most fortunately it happens, that since reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds, nature herself suffices to that purpose, and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium, either by relaxing this bent of mind, or by some avocation, and lively impression of my senses, which obliterate all these chimeras. I dine, I play a game of back-gammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends; and when after three or four hours’ amusement, I wou’d return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strain’d, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther.

Among educated folk, thoughts of gods rely on meetings with other believers to keep them going: believers are chronic sinus sufferers. They rarely anticipate the world being any different from a godless one, and those who act as if God is real are called crazy even by their fellow believers. To be sure, that doesn’t mean their avowed beliefs are false. But again, they are not like the commonplace beliefs that everyone takes on faith. In my experience, they fly forgotten, as the dream dies with the dawning day. How about a nice game of backgammon?

Edit: gjm11 suggests another reasonable response in this comment: admit that believing stuff without evidence is bad, and try to minimise it, and say that the problem with religious faith (in so far as that means holding unevidenced beliefs) is that it means having way more unevidenced beliefs than necessary.

Edit again: I’ve also commented with a shorter version of this on Coyne’s original posting, so there’s some discussion there too.

See also

Link blog: mackie, phones, scientism, christianity

Metamagician and the Hellfire Club: On moral evaluations

Blackford points out that morality doesn't require anything spooky or metaphysical to be rational and non-arbitrary, so long as we're prepared to accept that "[w]hatever judgments we make do not compel all comers, regardless of their desire-sets, to act one way or another on pain of making a mistake about the world or something of the sort."
(tags: philosophy morality ethics error-theory mackie russell-blackford)

“Have friends who are atheists? Agnostics? Into Wicca? Or New Age?”

Mefi discovers "Dare2Share", which is one of those worldview based Christian evangelism things where they're training Christians to understand other people's worldviews (which is good) as a preamble to converting them to Christianity (which would be bad). I've linked to Mefi rather than the site itself as the Mefites discussion is interesting. The site has cutesy names for their examplars, like "Willow the Wiccan" and "Andy the Atheist", so the Mefi crowd have come up with a few of their own.
(tags: metafilter apologetics christianity evangelism worldview)

New Statesman – The bugger, bugged

"After a chance meeting with a former News of the World executive who told him his phone had been hacked, Hugh Grant couldn’t resist going back to him – with a hidden tape recorder – to find out if there was more to the story . . . " Coppers taking backhanders from journos, oh my. No wonder the Met dragged their feet about the phone hacking case.
(tags: news journalism crime phones privacy surveillance police hugh-grant hacking)

Scientism « Why Evolution Is True

Jerry Coyne: "when used as a derogatory adjective, “scientism” means this:

the practice of applying rationality and standards of evidence to faith.

For religious people and accommodationists, that practice is a no-no. That’s why the adjective is pejorative."

I think there is something which we could validly call "scientism", namely the belief that science can answer all our questions, or that all questions reduce to scientific ones, or something. However, Coyne's point stands: "scientism" is often code for "how dare you ask us for evidence?"
(tags: scientism science religion jerry-coyne)

Link blog: christianity, funny, atheism, de-conversion

On knowledge and consistency « Evolving Thoughts

John Wilkins talks about the on-going debate on whether religion and science are compatible.
(tags: religion science jerry-coyne knowledge epistemology philosophy)

Preachers who are not Believers

Daniel Dennett and Linda LaScola, a social worker, look into the question of what it's like to be a pastor who doesn't believe in God. They've interviewed 5 closeted non-believing church leaders. Fascinating stuff: Dennett and LaScola write of the pastors' loneliness and conviction that there are many like them. They wonder whether they learned too much: "What gives them this impression that they are far from alone, and how did this strange and sorrowful state of affairs arise? The answer seems to lie in the seminary experience shared by all our pastors, liberals and literals alike… It is hard if not impossible to square these new facts with the idea that the Bible is in all its particulars a true account of actual events, let alone the inerrant word of God."
(tags: christianity religion ministers dennett daniel-dennett atheism de-conversion bible system:filetype:pdf system:media:document)

The new Buddhist atheism | Mark Vernon | Comment is free | guardian.co.uk

"In God is Not Great, Christopher Hitchens writes of Buddhism as the sleep of reason, and of Buddhists as discarding their minds as well as their sandals. His passionate diatribe appeared in 2007. So what's he doing now, just three years later, endorsing a book on Buddhism written by a Buddhist? The new publication is Confession of a Buddhist Atheist. Its author, Stephen Batchelor, is at the vanguard of attempts to forge an authentically western Buddhism."
(tags: buddhism atheism stephen-batchelor religion buddha)

Jobcentre’s sorry for the spurn of the Jedi | The Sun |News

"A JEDI believer won an apology from a Jobcentre which threw him out for refusing to remove his hood." This is absolutely right: we must respect religious freedom.
(tags: jedi religion politics jobcentre news sun funny hood)

Daryl, The Christian Volunteer

Darryl, the Christian Volunteer, gets a bit more than he bargained for when he sends out a flyer requesting permission for David Thorne's kid to attend a presentation on the true meaning of Easter. An increasingly hilarious and deranged set of emails from Thorne follows: "Also, is it true that Jesus can be stabbed during a sword fight and be ok due to the fact that he can only die if he gets his head chopped off?" No idea whether it's entirely made up, but it's fun anyway…
(tags: lolxians funny religion christianity easter school)

Link blog: religion, dualism, francis-collins, discovery-institute

Substance dualism

QualiaSoup has a new video up, a short argument against substance dualism (the idea that consciousness arises from separate kind of mental substance outside the physical world).
(tags: consciousness philosophy dualism qualia)

Theodicy III: Primo Levi versus Francis Collins

Jerry Coyne has been reading Francis Collins's "The Language of God" as well as Levi's works on Auschwitz. Not surprisingly, he doesn't find Collins's theodicy very convincing.
(tags: theology religion jerry-coyne francis-collins)

Rowan Williams’ choice | Andrew Brown | Comment is free | guardian.co.uk

Andrew Brown kicks some righteous ass: "Under Williams, the church that marries two women who love each other is to be thrown out of the Anglican Communion. The church that would jail them both for life, and would revile and persecute their defenders, stays snugly in his bosom. Not even the Archbishop's remarkable gift for obfuscation can conceal these facts forever."
(tags: homosexuality politics uganda uk religion christianity anglicanism rowan-williams)

Discovery Institute: The Mask Falls Away

The IDers at the DI go bonkers about the Climategate emails: "A cabal of leading scientists, politicians, and media concubines have conspired to lie about global warming. The reasons are obvious: power and money. … I’m not sure that the scientific community can or will respond to this debacle in a courageous or ethical way. The ID-Darwinism debate clearly demonstrates that venality and shameless self-interest, as well as a toxic leftist-atheist ideology, runs very deep in the scientific community." I'm adding "toxic" to my standard "neo-sceptical strident fundamentalist neo-atheist" spiel.
(tags: lolxians climate global-warming intelligent-design discovery-institute)

Dawkins: a bit like Jesus

Some theists are not far from the Republic of Heaven, it seems. Even now, I have hopes that they may turn to rationality.

First, there’s Terry Eagleton, who said in an interview in New Humanist that “If Dawkins has emancipated people, freed them from the religious closet as it were, then all credit to him. Loath as I might be to compare Dawkins to Jesus Christ, in this he resembles the heroic figure in the New Testament who comes to sweep away all the fetishism and sickness and cynicism of the neurotic religionists.”

Secondly, Richard Morgan (a Christian re-convert who was formerly a regular over at Dawkins’s site) has suggested that New Atheism may all be part of God’s plan. I have encouraged Richard to return to Dawkins in this thread. I said:

I wonder just how many de-converts who return to Christianity were ever really atheists at all. I mean, they may have looked like atheists, but were they proper atheists, like I myself am? How could they have been? Remember, posting on the Dawkins site doesn’t make you an atheist any more than going to McDonalds makes you a hamburger.

It is clear to me that these people never really had a personal relationship with Dawkins (by which I mean they read his books and sort of felt they must be true: obviously one should not be atheologically naive enough to expect any sort of clear two-way communication in a personal relationship. I did once email him, and I have every confidence he read it, plus I once got a comment on my blog and an email from Jerry Coyne, which is practically as good, surely?)

Speaking of atheological naivete, these people’s ignorance of atheism is shocking: they formerly believed in a caricatured Dawkins who advocated biological determinism and “scientism”; and they departed from orthodoxy in their concentration on Dawkins to the exclusion of the other Three Persons of the Horsemen. Doubtless some of this reflects the parlous state of teaching in atheist communities other than the ones I’m in, but I think these people have some responsibility to educate themselves. Had they even read more sophisticated atheological works? Are they familiar with Dennett on belief, Hume on miracles and on design, or Loftus on “the outsider test”? Surely not.

Richard, even now it is not too late for you. Just screw up your face and try harder, dammit.



If you’ve been moved by what you’ve heard here, there’ll be someone waiting in the comments section at the end to engage in rational debate with you. Thanks.

Creation Science 101

Gambling at Rick’s Bar

According to New Scientist, Francis Collins’s BioLogos site (wherein Collins, an evangelical Christian, advocates theistic evolution) not only faces the wrath of the neo-militant atheist secularists like Coyne and Myers, but has also been criticised by the Discovery Institute, who advocate Intelligent Design. They have a new site at Faithandevolution.org where they explain why Collins is wrong by quoting the Bible.

I’m a bit puzzled by this, as I thought that Intelligent Design was a hack get around the firewall that is the United States judiciary. The courts say you can’t teach religious opinion as fact in state schools, so if you want to get creationism into public education, you attribute creation to an anonymous Designer. You can then claim that you’re shocked, shocked I tell you (your Honour), that some kids might reach the conclusion that the Designer is the Christian God. I don’t want to tell these people their business, but setting up a web-site full of New Testament quotes gives the game away, doesn’t it?

Sun, moon and bumper sticker cry “Jesus is Lord”

Anyhoo, as it happens, the Discovery Institute quotes Romans 1:20, which I’ve mentioned before as a verse that supports the common evangelical belief that everyone knows there’s a God really, even if they don’t want to admit it. The DI say that Collins’s argument that God could have made stuff happen in such a way that his intervention was undetectable goes against the Apostle Paul’s statement that God’s existence is visible from what has been made.

I got into a discussion of undetectable divine intervention over on gerald_duck‘s LJ. gerald_duck had criticised atheists for saying that evolution proves there is no god, which is a valid criticism (if indeed there are any atheists saying that), but he’s oddly attached to the idea that it’s desirable to be agnostic about unwarranted beliefs, like Collins’s belief that the Christian god did it and carefully hid his tracks. I don’t really understand this. I accept that evolution is sufficient to explain the history of life after abiogenesis, because I think there’s good evidence for it. If evolution is sufficient, I require further evidence before I can conclude that, say, a god was involved. Without that evidence, I do not believe a god was involved (if gods there be: again, this isn’t an argument about their existence), just as I do not believe that any Flying Spaghetti Monsters were involved. I can’t strictly rule it out, but gods and FSMs are one of an infinity of possible additions to the hypothesis which I don’t seem to need, so why bother with any of them?

Over at the Discovery Institute, the cdesign proponentsists part company with Collins on whether evolution is in fact a sufficient explanation. If they could show that it isn’t, and further show evidence of design, they’d be on firmer ground than Collins is. Unfortunately for them, they can’t, but they were really following the evidence (which there’s some reason to doubt), their methods would be more rational than Collins’s.

New Scientist‘s Amanda Gefter has summarised it well:

Watching the intellectual feud between the Discovery Institute and BioLogos is a bit like watching a race in which both competitors are running full speed in the opposite direction of the finish line. It’s a notable contest, but I don’t see how either is going to come out the winner.

Heat is work and work’s a curse or I Was a Teenage Physicist

Ken again

Andrew Brown went to the lecture on God and evolution by Ken Miller, the one which robhu mentioned in the comments last time. Brown was impressed by Miller. I commented using the same arguments as my previous posting.

The wonderful thing about standards is

In other news, top geneticist Francis Collins has started his own Christian apologetics site, Biologos.org. Collins is a theistic evolutionist. He’s got answers for those awkward creationist questions (mentioned last time) on evolution and the Fall and death before the Fall. Not just one answer, in fact, but several, which could all equally well be true, because as far as I can see there’s no possible way to chose between them on the basis of evidence (except possibly on the evidence of a strong inner conviction, I suppose). Still, several answers are better than one, right?

Atheists can be wrong too

The usual suspects in atheist blogland are having fun with Biologos: here’s Jerry Coyne, P. Z. Myers, and P. Z. Myers. The latter P. Z. Myers refers to a post at Evaluating Christianity. Myers says this article at Biologos is making the argument that evolution is impossible because of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, a (badly mistaken) argument that is popular among creationists.

This is unfair to Collins, who knows the creationist argument is wrong. Collins is actually making a God of the Gaps argument. The low entropy condition of the early universe is an unsolved problem in physics, as Sean Carroll explains in Scientific American (Carroll commented at Evaluating Christianity confirming this). Unsolved problems in physics are fertile ground for Christians looking for something for God to do.

I hope Myers will issue a correction, because I think it’s important to get stuff like this right.

Religion and cartography or I Was a Teenage Theistic Evolutionist

Following on from his review of two books by theistic evolutionists, Jerry Coyne recently wrote an article criticising the US National Academy of Sciences for saying that evolution and Christianity are compatible. Richard Hoppe at Panda’s Thumb disagrees with Coyne, but P Z Myers supports him. Atheist fight!

Is evolution compatible with Christianity? Well, yes and no. I was a Christian who believed in evolution. This means not having good answers to some stuff Christians might care about: was the Fall a real event, and if not, where does original sin come from? Did physical death really enter the world through sin? If, as Christians usually argue as part of their theodicy on natural disasters, creation itself was corrupted in the Fall (whatever the Fall was), how exactly does that work? If you’re a Christian who accepts evolution, you don’t need atheists to ask these awkward questions, your creationist brothers (and sisters) will do a much better job of it.

But that doesn’t show incompatibility. If you keep running into these problems and have to keep adding ad hoc patches to your theory, you should consider discarding it, but there are things I don’t have good answers to as an atheist, and that hasn’t stopped me being one.

I was a student of science who was a Christian. That seems to be where the real problem lies. Theistic evolutionists tend to say stuff like “Evolution could have been the way God did it” or “Maybe God nudges electrons from time to time”. They might make a wider point about “other ways of knowing”. At some point, someone is probably going to say “well, Science cannot prove your wife loves you, but you believe that, don’t you?”

The Less Wrong crowd recently discussed whether their community is and should be welcoming to theists. Theism, Wednesday, and Not Being Adopted is a good post which deserves reading on its own merits, but I was particularly interested in Eliezer Yudkowsky’s comment about compartmentalising rationality.

If Wednesday [the child of Mormons mentioned in the article] can partition, that puts an upper bound on her ability as a rationalist; it means she doesn’t get on a deep level why the rules are what they are. She doesn’t get, say, that the laws regarding evidence are not social customs that can be different from one place to another, but, rather, manifestations of the principle that you have to walk through a city in order to draw an accurate map of it.

Sam Harris mocks this compartmentalisation in his satirical response to Coyne’s critics (the paragraphs following “Finally, Kenneth Miller, arrives” are the key ones). Science is one manifestation of the principle that you draw a map by walking the streets, not by sitting in your room and thinking hard about it. There are other legitimate forms of cartography, such as the one you apply when you conclude that someone loves you (assuming you’re not actually a stalker). Perhaps, like the Tube map, they’re not doing quite the same precise measurement as you’d expect from science, but they make useful maps.

Recall the original point of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, before it developed into a cod-religion for annoying Christians with, like the worship of Invisible Pink Unicorn (PBUHHH). The FSM’s inventor used it to point out that if you’re going to say your god created the universe because you sat your room and had a strong inner conviction about it, on your own argument, the FSM revealed to me as a Pastafarian is as legitimate as the creator your conviction revealed to you. This point is not lessened if you say your god sometimes happens to do stuff in a way which isn’t directly incompatible with known science.

Perhaps theism isn’t incompatible with evolution, but it is incompatible with good cartography.

Sam Harris makes a modest proposal

One of the Four Horsemen of New Atheism, Sam Harris, appears to have undergone some sort of conversion. This is serious stuff.

The people over at Edge have been talking about Jerry Coyne’s book reviews and thoughts on the incompatibility of science and religion (mentioned here previously). The authors of the books, Karl Giberson and Ken Miller, have both responded to the reviews.

Yet it is Harris, a former militant atheist himself, who responds most resoundingly to Coyne (and his supporter, Dennett), in a sweeping, magisterial essay whose sophistication, not to say length, rivals the work of William Lane Craig. I commend it to you.

<lj-cut text=”Just one more thing you should know before you comment”>This is a joke, people. Do read Harris’s essay, though, it’s laugh out loud funny in some places.