Sunday, September 25, 2005

Cases of Mythtaken Identity

Turns out that Odysseus may have been an actual historical figure, not just a character in Homer's Iliad. His likely tomb has been located in the village of Poros, on the Greek island of Kefalonia. And various details of Homer's account, such as the physical description of Odysseus's homeland, are supported by archaeological evidence.

Perhaps we should conclude from this evidence that Odysseus really was tormented by the sea-god Poseidon, that he blinded the cyclops Polyphemus, that the sorceress Circe turned his men into pigs, etc.

That, at least, is the logic of some Christians, who point to historical evidence about the life of Jesus to support their claim that he really was the son of God, that he walked on water, that he rose from the dead, and so on.


Glen Whitman said...

Fattriplet -- You won't be a token Christian friend, because I have quite a lot already, not to mention Christian family members. But those friends and family members know I think their religious views are bogus!

The main point of this post was that evidence of one kind of event is not evidence of a completely different kind of event, even if those events are supposedly connected. The evidence that Odysseus existed is *not* evidence that Circe turned his men into pigs. The evidence that Jesus existed is *not* evidence that he walked on water. Etc.

I was not attempting to make a broader argument against Christianity (though I've certainly done that elsewhere). I was simply drawing attention to one fallacious kind of reasoning.

With regard to your incentives point, it's clearly true that people respond to incentives *as they see them*. Muslim martyrs, for instance, are apparently strongly motivated by their belief in an eternal reward for killing infidels. Their willingness to do so is evidence of their beliefs, but it is *not* evidence of the *correctness* of their beliefs. Likewise for the actions of the disciples and apostles of Christ.

Glen Whitman said...

Fattriplet -- I think you also misunderstand Ben's point. I don't think he was saying, "Religions contradict each other, therefore they're all wrong." He was responding to your claim that the success of Christianity means that it's either the truth or a massive conspiracy. He was pointing out that there are other successful religions -- notably Islam -- for which the very same argument could be made: it's either the truth or a massive conspiracy. So one way or another, we end up accepting some form of conspiracy (if we accept your reasoning).

My view is that no big conspiracy is required -- maybe no conspiracy at all. Someone steals a body, nobody finds it, believers start spreading the story, others repeat the story with embellishments, etc. And we needn't assume that everyone involved had the same motivations. Some might be true believers, others knowing perpetrators of fraud. To see how it might start, look at Scientology. L. Ron Hubbard founded it on a dare, but now it's taken on a life of its own, with many true believers in the fold.

Glen Whitman said...

Just a note to everyone: I think this is an interesting debate, but let's keep the tone civil.

I think it's important to keep in mind that history has many unsolved mysteries. Pointing to them does not constitute evidence of the supernatural. Jimmy Hoffa vanished, and no one knows what happened to him. Most people figure it was probably a mob hit. But the police authorities assuredly followed that lead, and they've never found anything strong enough to support criminal charges. Should that lead us to invoke a supernatural explanation, e.g., that he rose to heaven in a shining light? Of course not. We just recognize that we lack the relevant facts, and maybe we always will. I feel the same way about the disappearance of Jesus's body. There are dozens of possible explanations for what happened, involving various combinations of deceit, illusion, blind faith, embellishment, incompetence (sleeping guards), malfeasance (bribed guards), and so on. We may never know what really happened.

The tack taken by Fattriplet and many others is essentially the "process of elimination" strategy: they seek to rule out all the natural explanations, leaving the supernatural as the only possibility. But I think this shows a lack of imagination. There are innumerable explanations, some more plausible and some less, and we can't rule them all out.

Even if we ruled out all the natural explanations, there are competing supernatural explanations. I can make up a few right now. Maybe God teleported Jesus out of the cave. Maybe Jesus evaporated into thin air. Maybe Jesus was just a divine hologram his whole "life," created by the mischievous Loki. Do these explanations sound absurd? Yes, but no more absurd than resurrection. So if you're going to prove Christ was resurrected, you'll have to rule out all these explanations as well.

Glen Whitman said...

Z -- What you're talking about is Pascal's wager. Pascal said it's wise to bet on the existence of God, because the consequences of being wrongly atheist are so incredibly large.

There are at least two problems with Pascal's wager. First, from the religious perspective, theologians will tell you that even contemplating the wager denies faith. If you really think there's that small a chance God exists, then you really don't believe in God.

From the non-religious perspective, the problem is the sheer number of different god possibilities. Whose god should worship? What if I worship the wrong one? If there's a chance of a jealous god, then worshipping the wrong one could be just as bad or worse than not worshipping at all.

Anders Branderud said...

Z and FatTriplet3 and other Christians: I reccommend the research on about the origin of Christianity.

Anders Branderud