Why “proving” things with Biblical quotes is a mug’s game

So the Jehovah’s Witnesses came round this morning. Woke me up, in fact. And they gave me a lovely little pamphlet (this one).

Now, what really struck me is this one quote:

The Evil One controls the whole world.
John 5:19

This presents a problem, since Matthew 22:21 tells us to “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” and Jesus told that “My Kingdom is not from this world” (John 18:36), which seem to imply that since this world is the Evil One’s, it therefore belongs to him and should remain his. I mean, what does God care, he’s got a whole other kingdom, right?

Of course, that’s just the one problem with this specific tract. But wait, there’s more. In fact, there are two much larger problems that any attempt to “prove” something from the Bible is doomed to fall prey to. It’s unavoidable.

The first of these is that the Bible’s claim to inerrancy rests upon itself, in perfectly circular logic. 2 Timothy 3:16 states that “All Scripture is breathed out by God” and Hebrew 6:18 states that “It is impossible for God to lie.” This is the basis of the claim to inerrancy – if God is responsible for all scripture, and cannot lie, then the Bible is inerrant. In other words, the Bible is inerrant because the Bible says it is inerrant. Except of course, that God does lie. He even admits it – in Ezekiel 14:9, he boasts “I the LORD have deceived that prophet“. So the claim of Hebrews is invalid, casting doubt on all the Scripture God has breathed out.

The second problem is a worse one for the quoters of scripture, because even if the Bible were inerrant and every word in it true, it could still be put to evil use. In fact, this problem gets worse if the Bible is inerrant. As Shakespeare points out, in “The Merchant of Venice”, “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose” – and while this line appears nowhere in the Bible, it does have scriptural support. In Matthew 4:1-11, when the Devil tempts Jesus, both of them quote from the Old Testament, with the Devil quoting from Psalms 91:11. It is also well established that the Devil can take on any form he likes. How then are we expected to tell that the person quoting the Bible to us is not the Devil?

Also, Jehovah’s? Next time you raise me from my sleep to answer the door to you, I’m not putting clothes on first.

Examining the Unexamined: The Soul

Related to the question of the afterlife I talked about a few weeks ago are the questions about the soul. Specifically, does it exist, and if so, what is it?

Does the soul exist? I don’t know. I’ve occasionally had experiences that seem to indicate that it does, but then, I’ve also had experiences that demonstrate that consciousness is certainly at least partially chemical in nature, and possibly entirely so. It’s here that the soul bumps up against our definitions of mind, of consciousness and even of free will. We know that consciousness exists (even solipsism and simulationism posit the existence of at least one consciousness). We know that mind exists, but not entirely what it is – and for that same reason, we cannot say for sure that free will exists.

Now we’re into thornier ground, because different folks disagree about whether or not free will is a necessity for the existence of souls, or whether the soul can exist in the absence of free will. If you believe in predestination, for example, you most likely believe in souls, but not free will (although if you’re like most people, you still react emotionally – in terms of credit and blame for one’s deeds – as if you and other people did have free will).

I personally cannot separate soul and consciousness – hell, I can’t separate mind and body as neatly as Descartes did (I think there’s a flaw in his premises that makes the rest of his reasoning suspect). But consciousness, from the available evidence, appears to be an emergent property of the human body. It does require the right environment, particularly in terms of nutrition and culture, to emerge at all – but all humans possess it in potentio.

The soul is much harder to judge. I find the Christian notion of the soul to be an unlikely proposition – if anything, I tend to agree with Monty Python:

Matter is energy. In the universe there are several kinds of energy, including those which act upon a person’s soul. However, this soul does not exist ab initio as orthodox Catholicism teaches, but must be brought into existence by a process of guided self-examination. Unfortunately, this is very rarely acheived due to mankind’s incredible proclivity for being distracted from spiritual matters by pointless trivia.

It occurs to me upon closer thought that the soul is here used a term to denote a form of consciousness expansion – as such, I’d prefer to think of it in terms of the Leary eightfold model of consciousness (which allows for ‘higher’ states of consciousness but requires no supernatural explanations), in which case ‘the soul’ is simply the term used for the higher circuits of the Leary model. Not that I regard that model as anything more than a theory, either.

To conclude then, I cannot state what the soul is with any certainty, but I do have certain firm beliefs about what it is not, which are primarily based on decades old and largely untestable psychological theories. Hh.

Examining the Un-Examined: The Afterlife

In many ways, this is the big question of belief. Not the existence of God or gods, but the existence of the afterlife strikes me as harder to prove or disprove. After all, Zeus Panhellenios could manifest tomorrow and that would prove something – but the undiscovered country is going to remain undiscovered until after death.

So it comes down to gut instinct, really. There’s no real way, so far as I can tell, to prove or disprove the existence of any afterlife from this side of the grave. But that doesn’t mean that the idea of it can’t inform moral judgements.

My opposition to the death penalty, for example, is partially based on not being able to tell whether this life is all we have or not. If it is, then there could be few things as immoral as killing as a punishment – particularly given the possibility of wrongful convictions. (If there is an afterlife, I would still potentially have moral issues with it, because my standards of justice differ dramatically from those of the medieval and pre-medieval minds that devised all these afterlives.)

The conditions for entry to various afterlives that I am aware of are all, without exception, restrictive and discriminatory – not that that’s all bad. Many of them seem to act as a filtering system for people I would prefer not to spend eternity with (Valhalla springs to mind, as does wherever suicide bombers think they’re going to go and those particular Heavens favoured by some born-again Christian sects in which getting to watch other people being tortured in Hell is part of the attraction). But the arbitrary nature of the restrictions, coupled with the punitive conditions most afterlife systems impose on those who don’t qualify, really, really disturb me – and in many cases, act as an encouragement to behaviour I consider immoral in this world.

Moreover, if the afterlife that existed were to be the of the kind depicted in many modern religions, it would actually make a mockery of the beliefs in question. Because the whole presummption of so many faithful that religion is required for morality is a flawed idea in any case, resting as it does on the idea that it is somehow more moral to behave in a decent fashion in the hope of receiveing a future bribe than just because it’s the right thing to do. For that very reason, I find myself hoping that there isn’t such an afterlife.

Conspicuous by its Absence

The legendary incident of Jesus cleansing the Temple of the moneylenders is one of the few to be described in all four gospels:

Matthew 21:12-13
12 And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all those who sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers and the seats of those who sold doves,
13 and said unto them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called the house of prayer,’ but ye have made it a den of thieves.”

Mark 11:15-17
15 And they come to Jerusalem: and Jesus went into the temple, and began to cast out them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves;
16 And would not suffer that any man should carry any vessel through the temple.
17 And he taught, saying unto them, Is it not written, My house shall be called of all nations the house of prayer? but ye have made it a den of thieves.

Luke 19:45-48
45 And he went into the temple, and began to cast out them that sold therein, and them that bought;
46 Saying unto them, It is written, My house is the house of prayer: but ye have made it a den of thieves.

John 2:13-16
13 And the Jews’ passover was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.
14 And found in the temple those that sold oxen and sheep and doves, and the changers of money sitting:
15 And when he had made a scourge of small cords, he drove them all out of the temple, and the sheep, and the oxen; and poured out the changers’ money, and overthrew the tables;
16 And said unto them that sold doves, Take these things hence; make not my Father’s house an house of merchandise.

Note how He left the paedophiles undisturbed.

Examining the Un-Examined: Tarot

As an agnostic, I’m comfortable – mostly – with the idea that there are things I can’t explain. It saves me a lot of time and effort. I can see where, to some people, that sounds like the classic lazy agnostic stereotype, but in my case, it’s more accurate to describe it as a way to let my brain off the hamster wheel it would otherwise be on. For that matter, it’s not like I decide that any of these things are permanently unexplainable – I try to check back in on the latest advances every so often, especially in physics and cosmology – merely that I cannot explain them at this time. I fully expect that in some future, more advanced and complicated state of ignorance than the one I currently possess, I will be able to explain some of these things to a greater extent than I can in my current state of ignorance.

One of the things I can’t explain is the Tarot. I have theories about it, but I don’t literally believe that it can predict the future. At least, I don’t think I do. It may be more accurate to say that I don’t believe it in my mind – my heart may be entirely another matter, although at this time, I can’t say for sure.

I do regard Tarot decks as a specific art form, one related most closely to painting, but also partaking greatly of a body of legend, ritual and precedent to inform the paintings. And it makes sense to me to ascribe personality to particular Tarot decks, in the same way that one can ascribe personality to works of literature or music – it’s the personality of the creator and of the creation. That much makes sense to me, and I will testify on a stack of Neal Stephenson novels that the four decks I own each have a distinct personality in this sense.

Beyond that? The tarot is a collection of archetypes (or rather, of constellations of archetypes, because each card has a symbolism that goes far beyond any single archetype), and as such, I do find it a useful basis as a prompt for thinking through problems. It provokes thoughts that I might not otherwise reach, forcing me to examine a situation through its lens rather than mine.

Wow, that sounds pat and rationalist, doesn’t it? Almost defensively so, in fact. I can honestly say that when I sit down to interpret a tarot reading, I don’t think of it that way past the initial decision to do the reading. But perhaps that’s not so bad. Perhaps, like a song or a fuck, it’s simply an experience you must surrender rational thought for the duration of, and emerge later with the experience and the wisdom, neither of which can be easily put into words. (Or maybe that’s just another rationalisation, but that way lies the hamster wheel I mentioned above.)

On the basis of all that, I see no conflict between my agnosticism and my tarot use. And were the efficacy of the tarot to be proven, there would even less conflict, for then it would simply be science.

And that’s an examination for another day and another post.

What’s so Good about it?

Welcome to yet another Good Friday. I suppose it’s nice to have the day off and all, but really, I have to wonder just exactly how much whoever coined that name really cared about Jesus the man, rather than Christ the symbol. Because I don’t imagine it was a very good day for him.

Think about it:

On the Thursday night, he gets together with his twelve best mates, sick at heart because he already knows that two of them will betray him (admittedly, to wildly differing scopes) in the next twenty four hours. He even tells them that one of them will betray him (Matthew 26:24-25, Mark 14:18-21, Luke 22:21-23 and John 13:21-30), and another will deny him (Matthew 26:33-35, Mark 14:29-31, Luke 22:33-34 and John 13:36-38).

He then goes and spend the next several hours begging his boss/father not to make him go through with it (Luke 22:43–44), because after all, who wants to die – especially in as painful a manner as crucifixion.

Jesus is then betrayed (just like he predicted) and arrested (Matthew 26:47–50, Mark 14:43–45 and Luke 22:47–48), whipped, made to wear a crown of thorns (Matthew 27:29, Mark 15:17 and John 19:2-5), forced to carry the instrument of his suffering and death through the streets of Jerusalem (Matthew 27:27-33, Mark 15:20-22, Luke 23:26-32 and John 19:16-17) and finally crucified (Matthew 27:34-61, Mark 15:23-47, Luke 23:33-54 and John 19:18-38).

It’s little wonder that one of the last things he said before dying on that cross was “E′li, E′li, la′ma sa‧bach‧tha′ni?” (Matthew 27:46 and Mark 15:34), or in English: My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?

Doesn’t sound like a very good Friday to me.

How Do I Know if Richard Dawkins is Real?

Do I seriously believe that Richard Dawkins exists? Well, most of the time, sure. It’s just that, every so often, he seems like a bad parody of an atheist rather than an actual one. Which got me wondering, what if there is no real Richard Dawkins? How would I know? And the more I thought about it, the more I realised that, as an agnostic, I really couldn’t tell.

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Science and Faith: A Reply

With all due respect to my guest poster of last week, I have to disagree with her in many points.

While I do think that it is possible for science and faith to coexist, I don’t think they can do so as equals. I think it’s only possible to do so if one of the two is ascendant over the other.

There are, naturally, two ways this can go: faith over science or science over faith.
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Guest Post: On Matters of Science and Faith

Recently, I was contacted by Aileen Stillman, who wanted to write a guest post on this site. As Aileen is both a scientist and a Christian, I thought her perspective on matters of faith and doubt might be interesting, so I agreed. Here’s what she sent me:
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Agnosticism vs Solipsism

This might seem like a weird one – a religious position vs a philosophical one – but bear with me. To me, agnosticism is a philosophy, and one that contributes to my code of ethics (although that’s not something I intend to go into today). Because Solipsism poses a particular problem to agnostics, for one very simple reason. But first, to define my terms.

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Effin’ Ineffable

It’s amazing how quickly, when challenged, Christians will retreat behind their platitudinous disclaimers. “God moves in mysterious ways” they’ll say. Or perhaps “we can never know the mind of God”. Or, of course, that old favourite, that it’s “ineffable”. Anything that doesn’t make sense is ineffable, which means that it does make sense, but only in the mind of God, so shut up and do as I tell you, you blasphemously questioning sinner.

Yeah, I don’t think so.
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