Monthly Archives: March 2012

There’s a Word for Death

I’ve said several times on this blog that the idea of hanging theology off Jesus’s death seems weak to me. There are things that are significant about death (compared to someone, say, being in a coma for a while, or asleep, or just not seeing them for as few days). And those things are no longer significant if the person in question is ‘resurrected’ shortly after their death. For all that is meaningful about death, Jesus, in orthodox Christian theology, didn’t die.

Today I came across the word for this. Or rather a word for the kind of death where, even in principle, nothing about the mind or thoughts of the deceased can be recovered. This is beyond breath death (the ancient and medieval criterion), beyond heart death, beyond brain death. It is Information-theoretic Death.

So, according to Christian theology, one might say Jesus underwent breath, heart and maybe even brain death. But not information-theoretic death. Nowadays we don’t think of breath death as being ‘real’ death, because we often restart people’s breathing, similarly their hearts (but note that, to a medieval doctor, what we are actually doing is resurrection). Brain death is beyond the limits of medical resurrection now, but if we found a way to restart interrupted brain function, that wouldn’t be ‘real’ death either. Information-theoretic death is real death. Theology teaches that Jesus didn’t die that kind of death. Perhaps it teaches that nobody ever dies that kind of death. That’s another question. In terms of Jesus, you can’t build a sane theology of Jesus’s death if he didn’t die for real.


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The Greatest Story Ever Told

I’m reading a lot about story theory at the moment, mostly for work (I love my job). I’m trying to give myself a major crash course in narratology and myth and story and creative writing. Its hard, fun and quite inspiring.

On the more pop end of this — where story theory gives way to ‘how to write a best selling novel in 3 hours’ books, I’ve come across a few gems of how to think about story. The two most significant, I think are these:

First — a plot is a question — you ask a question near the start of a plot-line, and answer it at the end. There should be only the minimum of content before the question to make the question understandable, and even less than that at the end. It may be “will the heroine get the boy?” or “will the terrorist succeed in blowing up the train?” Smaller plots figure the same, “will they get to the station in time?”, or “will her message reach him before the news of her apparent death?”

Second — a character arc is a choice made differently — give a character a similar choice at the start and end of their arc. They should go a different way. This shows their change in character. The heroine runs from a bully at the start, but stands up to another at the end. The hero chooses career over happiness at the start, but gives up his job for love at the end. The cop invents evidence at the start to secure a conviction, but at the end lets a guilty man go free through compassion.

I’ve written hundreds of thousands of words of fiction over the last 25 years (including this story). It’s fun. I don’t do it seriously, I don’t expect to be published as a fiction author (I’ve written over a million words of non-fiction which has been published). But I look back now at the stories that I’ve written that I thought were written well, that were linguistically good, evocative, and imaginative, but flat somehow. and I realise these two simple ideas could have radically improved them. I’m excited by what this knowledge means for the next stories I write.

I’ve always been dissatisfied with the claim that the bible contains the greatest stories ever told. The claim, from some non-theistic Christians, that it is the bible’s literary merit which attracts them (there are many other reasons non-theistic Christians identify as Christian, of course). Aesthetic appreciation is to some extent subjective (although not entirely), but I’ve never found it so, myself. Bible stories are interesting, evocative of time and place and an alien culture. They are spectacular in places, and laced with linguistic sophistication, poetry, irony, subtext, and so on. But as stories, ultimately very flat.

And in analyzing my own story telling in this light, I see why. The bible rarely sets up plots via questions and rarely gives a character arc.

I can think of some exceptions on each score, which are the more striking stories for that. But I can’t offhand think of a bible story with both qualities. Can you? I’ll keep my suggestions to myself for a while to see if there’s any takers….


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Where is the Mark Goodacre of Mythicism?

Once again there are sparks flying across the blogosphere about mythicism — the idea that there was no historical Jesus at the core of the Christian mythos. Prominent atheists such as PZ Myers have publically backed the anti-scholarship-plus-conspiracy-theory angle, as prominent NT scholar (and superb self-marketer*) Bart Ehrman has released a book for a general audience defending the overwhelming academic consensus.

We are seeing an increasing polarization between the camps. And an increasing descent into the same tactics as is frequent in the Creationism clash. Accusations of conspiracy, appeals to ‘academic freedom’, races to find even vaguely qualified professionals to bolster the non-consensus view, quote mining, ungracious reading**, goading academics into a response, then using the response as a sign that the debate is legitimate.

Today I was reading Mark Goodacre’s “The Case Against Q”, and it struck me that Mark provides both a good analogy and a sharp contrast.

Mark (who writes at NT blog, and speaks at NT pod) has a decidedly non-consensus view about the existence of Q: the most significant lost source behind the NT. Unlike the vast majority of NT critics, he believes and argues that it is mythical, that it never existed.

Now, Mark is an excellent scholar, with contributions to NT studies that range far outside arguments about Q. So far his career has done just fine, despite his Q heterodoxy.

I can totally imagine a Mark Goodacre of mythicism. Someone who made the forceful, rational, detailed case. Someone who demonstrates their scholarly acumen doing important work outside of that one issue. I simply do not believe that such a person would get hounded out of the academy or systematically refused tenure.

I take seriously the idea that Q is a complete fiction. I take it seriously because I take Mark seriously. I still tend towards the consensus that Q did exist, but those few times I’ve mentioned Q on this blog I’ve footnoted my Goodacre-induced doubts on it.

What would it take for me to take mythicism seriously? For the academy to? For any scholar to? I think it would take a Mark Goodacre of mythicism. Simple as that. It would slip effortlessly out of being a ‘crackpot internet atheist thing’ to being a minority viewpoint among serious scholars: a point of valid disagreement. Until that particular unicorn arrives, let’s not be surprised that mythicism is being laughed out of the academy. The hypothesis simply isn’t being made in a credible way, by credible people with a credible track record.

* This observation about Ehrman is not meant in the tiniest bit pejoratively. I deeply admire any academic who has the charisma and turn of phrase to bring their scholarship to the general public!

** Ungracious reading is the art of responding, usually with mockery, to the letter of what has been written, instead of trying to understand what the author meant and respond to that. It is frustratingly common on both sides.


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Is Playing The Lottery Rational?

We all know playing the lottery is a mug’s game, right?

If I have (say) a one in two million chance of winning a million, with one dollar ticket, then my expected return is 50c. I expect to get 50c, for my $1, only an idiot would take that. Lotteries are for mugs. It’s no wonder poor people play the lottery more than the wealthy. Clearly poor people are more stupid than the middle-classes.

If you don’t play the lottery, chances are you have some variant of that story. Perhaps without the bald-faced bigotry at the end, perhaps not (can you be honest enough with yourself to know?).

Of course it is rubbish. For a very simple reason. The value of money you control is not proportional with its quantity. If you have a billion dollars, you won’t feel 1000x times more wealthy than you will if you have a million. And with good reason: your standard of living won’t be 1000x times as high.

For those on low income, the value of a lottery jackpot is much higher than it is for you. So much higher that the expected value is greater than the cost. It is rational to play.

This isn’t novel or my idea, this has been analysed by many economists and is perfectly unremarkable.

What I was thinking about tonight, however, was Pascal’s Wager. Unlike the lottery, Pascal’s Wager is the opposite way round. It is always worth taking. The normal objections to it (how do you know if you’ve got the right God with the right arbitrary requirements, there is no good reason to believe in heaven or hell, etc) are merely ways to shorten the odds, but the reward is claimed to be so great, infinite even, that tiny chances of winning still give you a positive expected value. If salvation is infinitely great, no probability is small enough for you to pass.

But I suspect why Pascal’s Wager doesn’t work is for similar reasons to the naive lottery analysis. Our perception of value in eternal bliss tapers off, beyond a certain degree of bliss, it really is no more attractive to us than a slightly less blissful state. We accord an infinitely wonderful salvation with no more value than just a stupendously, but finitely, wonderful salvation. And so the small chance of getting the right God, of propitiating it in the right way, and of the afterlife being in any way as claimed, serves to make a lie-in on Sunday morning more rational than going to church.


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Science and Religion — What The Other Side Get Wrong

Okay, there are actually three sides here: the side that thinks religion and science can be compatible, the side that thinks science shows religion to be false, and the side that thinks religion shows science to be false. I spend too much time arguing against creationism, so I’m going to ignore them.

The important issue that those who beat religion with a scientific stick usually fail to address is this:

Religion derives little of its importance from its truth claims. It is powerful because it provides identity, community and meaning.

And none of those three rely on the truth claims for their potency, except meaning, and even then I’d argue it is a minor thing.

If all churches in the world, tomorrow, admitted that their doctrines were not empirical. They all renounced all their claims for God’s detectable intervention in the cosmos. In short if they conceded that science and religion were incompatible and science won. Membership would drop undoubtedly. But I suspect it would not be decimated. Most catholics would still be catholics, most anglicans still anglicans, most orthodox still orthodox. Most people would modify their beliefs and not lose their faith, and some may come into the church as a result.

I know quite a few Christians who’s beliefs are indistinguishable from mine. They are Christians. Why? Because they chose that to be their identity, they chose that community to be their community, they choose that mythology to be the lens through which to see meaning in the world.

And that’s why, when non-compatibility folks launch into a devastating dismantling of Christian truth claims, most Christians don’t give a fig. In fact most Christians who are professional scientists don’t give a damn.

I’ve heard Richard Dawkins describe this with obvious frustration as a compartmentalizing in religious scientists. They simply won’t let themselves look at their religion with the same eyes they do their science. It doesn’t surprise me. Most scientists don’t look at most things in their life that way. It would make for a shakey marriage, for example. No, religious folks understand, by and large, that while empirical claims may be part of the machinery of religion. That’s not what religion is really for. At least that’s not what they use it for. So all the scientific and logical arguments in the world will sail irrelevantly by most believers.

The real question is, and one I’d love to find the answer to, can we bootstrap the same power of identity, community, and meaning, from where we are now in our western culture, without the doctrines of religion? Can we figure out how religion works its magic, not to dismantle that magic (because people need identity, community and meaning), but to replace it with something that has fewer negative side-effects? That question is empirical, and would take some really interesting work in social science to answer. That is a science vs religion conversation worth having.


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Science and Religion – What the Religious Get Wrong

In my previous post I pointed out that debates and science and religion are often fruitless because both sides argue straw men. They invent positions for the other side (or either quote mine them or cherry pick the most straw position) and then argue against it.

Thinking and reading about this was prompted by reading a book belonging to my sister on the topic. The thesis was basically this: Modern physics (cosmology in particular) makes use of hypotheses that are non-empirical – that couldn’t be evidenced even in principle (like multiple universes, say), therefore the naive idea that science is about evidence is old fashioned, and therefore so is the idea that religion’s lack of empirical evidence somehow puts it at odds with science.

There are other approaches, I use this purely as an example.

By and large what religious compatibility-advocates fail to deal with is this:

Is there anything in your religion — anything whatsoever — that if true, would have any observable effect on the world?

If there is, then it really doesn’t matter whether non-empiricism is a valid tool in hypothesis construction, or whether faith is the most important thing, or anything else. If there is then your religion comes into the realm of things we can go and find and look at. So why waste time arguing whether science is compatible with religion? Let’s go look.

And before you say that the effects are subtle, so they couldn’t be observed, let’s discus what the effects might be. Let’s start with “here’s what effects there are, how do we look for them?” rather than the blanket “there are effect, but they can’t be seen”, which just presumes failure. We can detect stuff, even if it is very subtle, even if purely psychological. Even if it were supernatural, as long as it had some direct or indirect effect on the world. Anything that has an effect, we can go look at – so let’s start there. Because if that effect is real then all the arguments are moot.

If there isn’t then… Well that’s cool. But let’s be clear, exactly, what we’re saying. That the content of your religion has no effect, no discernible effect on the world. If that’s what you mean, it’s fine then to talk about non-empiricism: that’s allowed then. You’re right, there is no conflict in that case.

If you claim your religion has some discernible effect on people or things, then science and your religion are compatible if those effects are real.

If you claim your religion has no discernible effects on people or things, then the issue of a conflict between science and religion goes away.

Any argument that doesn’t take seriously existing empirical claims (explicit or implicit) within religion should not be taken seriously. Note I am not making any claims about what religions do or do not claim. I am merely making the observation that, by and large, religious writers on science avoid facing this question honestly. And surely if you are claiming that two fields are compatible, the first question to ask is whether they can ever overlap, and if so whether they would agree.


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