Saturday, May 17, 2003

Why darling, you look smashing!

I think my mother would appreciate this.

(Via the Telfster, not surprisingly.)
The peanut gallery speaks

There have been several good comments on the resurrection issue. Tom quotes from the Pope:
In believing, we entrust ourselves to the knowledge acquired by other people. This suggests an important tension. On the one hand, the knowledge acquired through belief can seem an imperfect form of knowledge, to be perfected gradually through personal accumulation of evidence; on the other hand, belief is often humanly richer than mere evidence, because it involves an interpersonal relationship and brings into play not only a person's capacity to know but also the deeper capacity to entrust oneself to others, to enter into a relationship with them which is intimate and enduring.

Well, part of my complaint about studying the history of the resurrection was precisely that it's impersonal. It's not a relationship any more than reading about dinosaurs is a relationship. At most, what we have here is a long, loooong chain of relationships connecting 2003 L.A. to 33 Judea. That chain exists, but it's become so attenuated, and so much else has happened along the way, that it's hard to know what to make of it.

To a certain extent, this seems to be repeating the "power of witness" case I discussed at the end of this post. Essentially, if you love and trust Christians enough, you'll adopt their point of view. But "trust," like "knowledge", is an extremely broad concept. There are Christians I love and trust but I don't sufficiently trust any of them about that. That may sound bad, but I think everybody doles out trust by degrees; we probably all know somebody we'd trust to, say, keep a secret or help us out of a jam, but who we wouldn't necessarily trust to show up at a party on time.

Peter Nixon writes:
I'm not sure I completely agree that the idea of the intrinsic dignity and worth of the human person is something that arises from within ourselves. I guess the lesson I take from human history is that human beings tend to place higher value on those who are of the same family, clan, race, ethnicity, nation, or lingustic group. I think my own experience would lead me to value myself, but it wouldn't necessarily lead me to value others.
Good point. I think what I was trying to say is that if you're trying to make a general observation about human beings, you can simply draw on yourself and humans around you -- it's not the same as trying to piece together a specific event in the past. But it's true that such observation doesn't compel only one conclusion. Obviously.
But you are right, I think, to say that a lot of this comes down to how you come to trust in the truth of things that you can't verify personally. And while a scientific approach makes sense for things that are subject the normal constraints of biology and physics, I'm not sure the resurrection really falls into that category.
Well, that's exactly the problem I was pointing out. I am accustomed to taking a certain approach to evaluating events that I haven't personally experienced; if I don't take that approach, what do I take? Now that I've hashed it out like this, I think the crux of the problem is that I'm being asked to take an impersonal event (the resurrection) and treat it like a personal event (relationship). For me, at least, the way I experience some far-off and uncertain event of the past and the way I experience emotional events in my life are so different that the one really doesn't translate into the other.

My friend Gavin also makes a long comment explaining why Julius Caesar's conquest of Gaul is much better attested historically than the resurrection is. I was pulling up Gaul as a hypothetical, not because I know the evidence well enough to say it's comparable (and I think Gavin knew that). But he does support the feeling I had about this already: if you're relying on documents of unclear authorship that were written decades after the event, I don't think you could even make a prima facie case in a court of law. In other words, your probability of proving anything beyond a reasonable doubt is so low it's not even worth hearing. Which I suppose is why my heels are still dug in.

UPDATE: I corrected a link above because I mistakenly identified the Tom who commented as this Tom, when apparently it was this Tom. Sorry. I have three Toms who comment on my blog, so it gets mighty confusing...

Friday, May 16, 2003

I know what I know, and I'll sing what I've said

After reading my own rather negative response to Peter's valiant attempt to answer my question about the resurrection, I thought I should elaborate a little more on what I'm thinking.

In some sense, I suppose, everything you do in life is a gamble. And my perception of Christianity as a risky move comes partly from the fact that it would mean, for me, moving away from where I am. The Catholic Karen Hall likes to say that she's become more orthodox with age because "I don't want to stake my soul on the fact that I'm smarter than the Pope." For someone who's always been Catholic, the gamble is not being Catholic.

I think this is the point that Telford's been trying to drive into me -- you have to live your life by some theory of the cosmos; you can't remain neutral. Still, I've been bugged by this persistent feeling that there are different ways of knowing things, and they are not all comparable. We're wading into epistemology here, which from a book-learning standpoint I don't know jack about. So I'll just give my personal observations.

There are some things that you know because they're within yourself. Although people's self-observations aren't perfect either, there are some things that are so inherently part of the experience of consciousness itself that you can't not know them. Your sense of who you are, what your thoughts and feelings are, the sensations of your body and so on. (Some Eastern philosophies argue that self is also an illusion, but let's put that aside for the moment.) This means of knowledge is self-centered but it's not entirely about self. You also experience your relationships with other people on this level. There are certain people I say I "carry around in my heart," because they've become part of my experience of being me, whether or not they're physically present. My friend John remains that way even though he's dead.

In the movie Contact, a character defended his belief in God, despite the lack of empirical evidence, by saying, "Do you love your father? Prove it." I realize a movie based on a novel by an atheist isn't the most authoritative source on religious belief, but my own contact with the faithful suggests a lot of them do experience God that way. When Peter compared belief in the resurrection to belief in the dignity and worth of the human person, that stuck me as being off-kilter -- that's an observation about your own nature, not about the factuality of something that happened a long time ago on the other side of the world. But certainly most Christians seem to experience God as something within themselves -- even if they're not so Gnostic as to believe in "God within," their relationship with him is part of who they are, like my relationship with John is part of who I am.

The farther things are removed from you in space and time, the less you "know" them in that personal way. The farther I go outside myself, the more I rely on a scientific concept of knowledge, which is quite different from the kind I just talked about. It involves a much greater level of uncertainty, and thus much less emotional investment.

The difference is a source of a lot of conflict between religion and science. Josh Claybourn recently posted on some recent research about Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals, and wondered, "Considering the ever-changing theories and what seems to be no clear idea how we got here, why should we keep latching onto the new explanations?" The fact that scientists disagree and change their minds strikes a lot of people as reason to disbelieve the whole project, whereas to scientists it's exactly the reason to believe in it. It is, in effect, admitting to the extent of what you don't know: you have a theory that fits the facts as you know them, but more facts could come along and change your view.

Through most of human history, for instance, it was perfectly sensible to believe that the earth is a giant, stationary object (and generally, a flat one) around which orbit smaller celestial bodies. After all, you look around, and that's what it looks like. The only people who doubted it were making very detailed astronomical observations, noticing funny things like parallax and the retrograde motion of certain planets. But even those people couldn't prove the shape of the universe one way or the other. It wasn't until our data radically expanded, thanks to telescopes and travel, that a counterintuitive model of the universe came to look like the right one.

To me, the factuality of the resurrection is a category of knowledge more akin to the shape of the solar system than to whether I love my friends. Sure -- as Peter says, given what we know, the theory that Jesus actually rose from the dead seems like the most straightforward explanation. But straightforward explanations often turn out to be wrong, which is why it bugs me to think that God would hitch my salvation to this. It especially bugs me because there's so much value-judgement attached to whether you have faith. There isn't a lot of that in this corner of the blogosphere, but there is among a lot of Christians, and it seems to me there's a lot in the Bible. But I don't see what it has to do with how good or bad a person you are. The ever-provisional nature of scientific knowledge does not cause you to love something with all your heart and soul and mind, to give your life to it, or to try to convert the world to it. To the extent that scientists do that, they are being unscientific.

Dash, in the comments, to the first post, put it concisely: "Faith is something you know, not something scientific. Not based on logic, but on your own needs." A lot of people are content to keep these things in separate baskets, but a lot of people aren't. Including Telford, which I think is why he's been trying to get me to do this. But I wonder if there really is an unbridgeable divide here, not in what you know but how you know it.
That's gotta hurt

Dash is still blogging through Genesis, and includes this interesting aside:
I remember my ex-husband describing his circumcision at 7 years old--he was Muslim, and I guess that's the age at which it's done in Islaam. Gads! Couldn't they have done that to you when you were a baby so you wouldn't have to remember it? Nope. The point WAS that you should remember it. Culture. Go figure.

Is it done at that age all across Islam? It gets confusing because I know a lot of Islamic countries have carried over genital-mutilation practices that were actually pre-Islamic. In some cultures it's done as a rite of passage on a boy to test his ability to stoically endure pain. (Warrior societies -- gotta love 'em.) A lot of them also do "circumcison" on girls to supposedly ensure chastity, but that's definitely not Islamic.

Anyway, it's nice to finally confirm my suspicion that Dash is female. Unless we're talking "husband" in a very unofficial way, but that's unlikely...

Thursday, May 15, 2003

The rising

Peter Nixon responded to my questions about the historical evidence for the resurrection. His take on the evidence is more or less the same as my own:
I’m not sure the historical evidence for the resurrection is strong enough to convince someone who takes the view that something is false unless proven true by a preponderance of evidence. We are dealing with testimony that is almost 2,000 years old. You can always create plausible alternatives, particularly if you begin from the position that resurrection from the dead is physically impossible, and therefore can’t happen.

But those of us who do believe it aren’t completely naked before the bar of reason. We can ask how was it that a dispirited ban of messianists who scattered in fear after the execution of their leader suddenly returned to lives of public witness, even if it meant persecution and death? We can ask why first century Jewish polemic argued that the disciples had stolen Jesus’ body from the tomb, therefore implying that there was an empty tomb that had to be explained. We can ask whether it is plausible that the disciples would proclaim that Jesus had risen from the dead, and even be willing to die for this belief, unless they were really convinced it was true?

Something momentous clearly happened. I suppose we can argue about what that something was. Was it a mystical experience? A collective hallucination brought on by religious hysteria? We have the testimony of the Gospels and of Saint Paul that the disciples encountered something that they knew to be the Jesus who they had known. The only compelling reason I find for discounting that testimony is an a priori belief that such a thing could not happen.

I don't know if I'd say that's the only reason. I think that the fact that it's something that defies the laws of physics, so to speak, does make me more skeptical than if it were something that happens all the time. I also think that, as I said earlier, the fact that people's memories are malleable, and the way stories grow and collect details over time, is not the reason to discount the testimony so much as take it with a grain of salt. Did the "something" that happened really happen that way? Did they interpret it correctly? How would we know?

Peter goes on:
But are these the reasons that I believe in the resurrection? No. They are merely reasons why such a belief does not seem unreasonable to me. My belief in the resurrection is inextricably bound up with my belief in the community that proclaims it. I see the power of the resurrection projected over 2,000 years, like the original cosmic explosion that continues to power the growth of the universe even today. I see that the community that believes this truth is able to explain the riddle of our existence, is able to survive and thrive for two millennia, is able again and again, in different times and different cultures, to raise up people who push the limits of what it means to be human. I see a truth proven, not with arguments, but with lives that have become luminous because they have been lived according to that truth.

But couldn’t it still be false? Could the resurrection be no more than a comforting story that allows those who believe it to do extraordinary things, but that has no intrinsic truth in and of itself. But we might ask the same question about concepts like the “dignity and worth of the human person,” a concept that undergirds almost everything we believe about the right ordering of the relationships between human beings. How do we know that what we believe about ourselves is true, particularly after a century where so many political movements and tyrannical regimes seemed to be dedicated to the contrary proposition? I think that in the end, we believe in the dignity and worth of the human person because we have seen the great good that comes from acting as if that belief were true, and the great evil that results from acting as if that belief were false.

This subject of the "witness" offered by the goodness of Christian communities keeps coming up, so I might as well address it, even though it's somewhat off-topic. I've been hearing both sides of this a lot: Christians saying look at all the good that Christian people do, atheists pointing to all the evil that's been done in the name of God. The problem with both viewpoints is the same: what's our point of comparison? How can we know what the world would have been like if there had been no Jesus? Certainly neither great good nor great evil have been exclusive to any one religious community. Or any community of any size.

I'm also reminded of Tom's three little words. Does the fact that something led to a good outcome mean it was a good idea to begin with, let alone true?
On deaf ears

Patio Pundit has a good observation about the Jayson Blair case:
I really don't think that this is about lefty bias or affirmative action. It is about poor leadership. ...

Any of us can be fooled by a brown-noser -- I've been. The trick is to foster an open and honest atmosphere with your executive team so that your subordinates will tell you when you are being snowed. That's what saved me.

When I hired a brown-nosing slick-talking dude that fooled me, I was lucky enough to have many people who felt comfortable enough to warn me that I had made the wroing choice. Different people, from my assistant to rival managers came to me and told me some uncomfortable truths that I (and my boss) had missed.

From the Times' own accounts, the email warnings of Jayson Blair's bosses show that there were credible people who could have (or tried to) blow the whistle on Blair, if only they felt like they could without screwing up their own careers. That was Raines' failure. He should be held accountable.

I've been thinking something along these lines myself since the story broke. Some bloggers have said Howell Raines' admission that he probably (unconsciously) favored Blair because he was black proves that affirmative action was the culprit here. But Raines' unconscious bias isn't the same as an affirmative-action policy. If there had been no such policy in place, Raines would have had the same bias. If he hadn't had a bias in favor of black people, he would have had one in favor of something else. That's part of being human. The problem is when there's no mechanism to correct for the manager's personal biases. Given that many people tried to warn him about Blair's problems, it sounds like there wasn't one.

(Via Instapundit.)

Wednesday, May 14, 2003

Bringing on the dead

Readers may recall a post last month in which I disputed the reliability of eyewitness testimony with Telford, in particular with regard to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. The discussion continued offline and reached an impasse, and I'm giving Telford a much-deserved break from harassment while he finishes grading. But the subject raised some interesting issues, which I thought I'd throw open to the readers and fellow bloggers.

Telford has been leaning on me to do the obvious: read the historical-Jesus research myself. And I've been dragging my feet. Well, I've been worse than dragging my feet: I've been digging in my heels. I don't want to do it. Why not?

One thing I realized from our discussions about the earlier post, is that our disagreement wasn't so much about the quality of the evidence so much as what evidence is "enough for faith." I said that it's possible that there's as much evidence for the resurrection as there is for other, generally accepted events in ancient history, like, say, that Julius Caesar conquered Gaul. But if it came down to it, I wouldn't stake my soul on the fact that Caesar conquered Gaul either. It's simply a problem of the inherent unreliability of sources, especially after all this time. Imagine what kind of bogus stuff a future archeologist scratching through remnants of our own media could come up with. The difference is that the question of whether Caesar conquered Gaul isn't really relevant to my life, so I can just accept it as cultural common knowledge without worrying about the implications.

Suppose the evidence indicates there's a stronger possibility that the resurrection happened than that it didn't happen. So if that's the case, isn't it better to play the odds? Maybe, but it seems to me that still isn't faith. When people are so committed to the concept of Jesus that they're willing to suffer and die for it -- like those North Koreans, for instance -- I doubt they're thinking, "Well, there's a 90% certainty that this is true." People speak of knowing this sort of thing, in a very real way. Pen, whose archives I can't seem to find, wrote a while ago of a moment when he knew Jesus loved him. Moreover, I don't think it involves having in the back of your mind the possibility that, should new evidence come along saying something else, you could change your mind. Some people have said this is the sine qua non of the difference between scientific knowledge and religious faith: one is always open to change, the other isn't.

Then again, everyone who's said that has been speaking from the scientific side of it. Maybe I'm all wrong about what faith consists of. Maybe the faithful are just bolder gamblers than I am. In fact, I had a conversation with one of the Alpha leaders that indicated that. She said she regarded Christianity as the most likely explanation for things, and once she "placed her bets" on it, then she started experiencing things that convinced her further. But she admitted that probably didn't sound like the most convincing testimony.

The problem isn't just the possibility of being mistaken. The idea offends me that God wants us to gamble. (I'll resist the temptation to make any Bill Bennett jokes.) I think one reason I resist is that I so despise the idea that God wants me to meet him like that. It just seems deeply wrong somehow.

Another issue is what the reality of the resurrection would actually imply. I think Telford assumes that if you buy into the resurrection, you pretty much have to buy into everything, because it means everything Jesus said was true. I wouldn't be quite so quick to say that, though. The ability to raise the dead indicates a power beyond human capacities (at least, current human capacities), but there are several million light-years between "beyond human capacities" and "the omnipotent Creator and Lord of the universe." It also doesn't tell us whether Jesus' behavior is really all we need to know about God. On those points, we basically just have Jesus' say-so. Should we believe him? I don't know, but I still feel that the way God acts through Jesus (not to mention the rest of the Bible) is a helluva bizarre way for an omnipotent Creator to act.

Although I was raised unchurched, all my life I've felt that the existence of God was a real enough possibility to be afraid of it. Most Christians approve of fear of God, but believe me, all by itself it's an unhappy thing. I feel like if I research the historical Jesus and decide it's all probably true, it will make the problem not better but worse: I'll be more scared, but not any more loving, trusting or comprehending.

So I'm curious to know what the rest of you think of this. Is faith something you know, or is it a matter of probability? Do you know or care if the resurrection is supported by historical evidence? Do my objections make sense to anybody besides me?

Men in tights

I saw the X-Men movie on Friday, by the way. It's already old news in the blogosphere so I won't go into it, but I had a good time. I just thought I'd point to Ian McKellen's defense of goofy superhero costumes:
I have been the last to acknowledge it, but Magneto's helmet was not a success in the first film. Everyone agrees on that, even the die-hardest of fans who love everything, even they agree. The helmet was a joke. The helmet is the piece of costume I treasure most, because it is very much the helmet worn in the comic. Otherwise that spandexed, over-muscular, gigantic thighed Mars and I have nothing in common, to look at. Inside, of course, we are as close as close can be.

Long ago I heard Stan Lee interviewed on the radio, and he was asked why he always drew superheroes in such undignified costumes. He replied that in the early days the Marvel folks did try out a group of heroes who wore more ordinary clothes, but the reader reaction was so negative they soon had them in garish cling-wrap outfits like everybody else. I imagine McKellen is onto the reason: the wilder the outfits, the less like reality they are. And better yet, the easier it is to transform yourself by dressing up like them. How could you play Superman if he dressed like you?

Matt Welch has a good idea for journalists to help prevent factual screw-ups, and keep relationships with sources. It also makes me feel guilty, because a lot of sources have asked me to send along a copy of the finished article, and given the lag time to publication I often forget. I really need a better note-to-self system... well, actually I need a note-to-self system...

Tuesday, May 13, 2003

Spelling pet peeve

Yesterday at the gym, I saw a woman wearing a T-shirt commemorating some event at Vassar College. It reprinted a quote -- I don't remember now exactly what -- attributed to "Ghandi."

It's supposed to be spelled Gandhi, but the other way is becoming so common it's in danger of being an alternate spelling. Enter it in Google and you'll turn up almost as many hits as for the correct spelling.

It's confusing, of course, because the way English speakers pronounce it, the H is silent. But in India the H denotes the fact that the D is aspirated, so it actually sounds like a T, but voiced. The G is not aspirated, but pronounced the same way we pronounce it. Not that I expect English speakers to go around aspirating the D, but it would be nice if they'd spell it right...

Monday, May 12, 2003

Great moments in science

When I saw this story, via Minute Particulars, I thought two things:

1) "Infinite Monkey" would be a great name for a rock band

2) Does this mean Charles Murtaugh has to change his slogan?
May his tribe increase

Pen is going to have a little pacifist!
I just want to make one thing clear

I haven't been dabbling in Wicca, despite what it may look like. Sheesh, you think you come up with an original blog name... The other Camassia's blog link doesn't work, though, so it looks like I'm the only one at present.

Sunday, May 11, 2003

The truth is out there

Telford has an interesting new FAQ up describing the various levels of Christian belief. Along the way, he goes into a general digression on relativism and absolutism.

I'd heard him talk about the false fact/value distinction before, and never bothered to pick his brain about it (usually, I was busy picking his brain about something else), but I think I see what he's getting at here. I've sometimes run into the attitude that values are things that people just "have," with no relation to their factual understanding of the world, and I think it's false. I touched on this subject in this post, on why the nature-nurture issue matters to moral issues. Or to take another example, the existence of an afterlife that rewards some behaviors and punishes others is an issue of fact, but it certainly has value implications.

Actually, Telford's whole article reminds me of a study I read when I was a psych undergrad. It was a recent study of students that was done at my college, so it had the added interest of describing the sort of people I lived among. It was actually doing a female update of a study done at Yale back when it was all male, of students' moral development. It didn't actually study what their morals were, but how they arrived at them.

The first stage that the authors identified was much like absolutism. Those subjects simply accepted dogmatically what they were brought up to believe, and thought everything else was wrong. The Yale study found some students like that, and not surprisingly Telford seems to have some too, but at my swanky 1990s liberal-arts college they found only one, and she was from an Indian reservation.

Most students they interviewed adhered to "multiplism," which sounded essentially the same as what Telford calls relativism. They still adhered to the values they were raised with, but they realized others were brought up with different values, and that was OK. It was all a "matter of opinion," and all opinions were equal. It was like differences in hair color. When pressed about really abhorrent opinions, like fascism, some of these students went into goofy mental convolutions (alas, I no longer have the study so I can't quote one), but in everyday life they didn't have to deal with these kinds of things, so it kept life on campus peaceful.

Many students stuck with multiplism throughout their college careers, but some began to realize that opinions can be constructed, not just passively received. Essentially, they tuned into the connection between values and facts. While still aware of their subjectivity, they came to form their beliefs out of evidence and thought.

I don't know if this is like what Telford calls "perspectivism" -- it's hard to tell from a one-paragraph summary -- but I think it's the same idea. Essentially it's the middle ground between realizing you can't get out of your own viewpoint, and going all pomo and thinking there's no such thing as reality. There may be many ways to see truth, but it's there somewhere, and it's worth seeking.