Thursday, March 26, 2015

The inconsistency of Bart Ehrman

Despite the hostility of evangelical Christians towards the work of Bart Ehrman, I usually line up behind his scholarship. I agree with his views regarding Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet, Jesus’s divinity as being projected on him by his followers, contradictions in the gospels etc. And for the most part I have found him a valuable resource regarding enlightening laymen about the details and conclusions of New Testament scholarship.

However, recently I had been rummaging through his popular works—along with his latest book How Jesus Became God—and found some glaring inconsistencies that make me question any type of confidence I previously had in his scholarship. I will only highlight a couple of examples here.

The first book I read from Ehrman was his Jesus Interrupted, wherein he really just attempts to shine the light of scholarly consensus on issues of the New Testament. Now, take a look at what he says here:

[H]istorians have problems using the Gospels as historical sources, in view of their discrepancies and the fact that they were written decades after the life of Jesus by unknown authors who had inherited their accounts about him from the highly malleable oral tradition. (p. 13)

 Examine the first aspect of this sentence. Ehrman seems to insinuate that the Gospels are dubious as historical sources. Yet, compare this with his claims in Did Jesus Exist?:

If historians prefer lots of witnesses that corroborate one another’s claims without showing evidence of collaboration, we have that in relative abundance in the written sources that attest to the existence of the historical Jesus. (p. 92)

 Let me say right away that these claims do not directly contradict the above claims by Ehrman, and that is not my assertion here. Rather, my point is that Ehrman seems quick to discredit the Gospels as valuable historical sources in one case, yet he is eager to uphold them as the exact opposite in order to bolster his argument in another instance. This is inconsistent.

Now examine the latter part of Ehrman’s claims above in Jesus Interrupted, namely, his comment regarding the problems of oral tradition. In said book Ehrman expands on this comment and compares the oral tradition of the Jews to a game of telephone carried out between different countries, different languages, and different contexts over forty or more years. He then claims that, with this analogy in mind, we would therefore expect the Gospels to be riddled with discrepancies and contradictions. This, again, would seem to frame the historicity of the Gospels in an unfavorable light. Yet, here are Ehrman’s comments on oral tradition in DJE:

Where did all these sources [for the Gospels] come from? They could not have been dreamed up independently of one another by Christians all over the map because they agree on too many of the fundamentals. Instead, they are based on oral tradition. (p. 86)

 Again, Ehrman’s claims on oral tradition are not in direct contradiction here. But, in one instance he highlights oral tradition as the main reason for the contradictions and discrepancies of the Gospels that make salvaging historical material from them extremely difficult, yet, in another instance he asserts that the very same oral tradition is a necessity for the agreement of the Gospels and is something that is quite valuable for the historical study of the Gospels.

Now, while we’ve only examined inconsistencies in Ehrman’s books so far, I maintain that he has in fact outright contradicted himself. For instance, one of the main points utilized to combat Jesus-Mythicism in Ehrman’s book DJE is his claim that the immediate followers of Jesus did not regard him as divine in any sense of the word:

[J]esus could not have been invented as a dying-rising god because his earliest followers did not think he was God. (p. 222)

 And again:

That the earliest Christians did not consider Jesus God is not a controversial point among scholars…[S]cholars are unified in thinking that the view that Jesus was God was a later development within Christian circles. (p. 231)

 These sentences are unequivocal. It is quite clear what Ehrman is asserting here. Jesus was not seen as God by his immediate followers, rather, this title was simply thrust upon him by Christian followers of a subsequent time. Got it. But then Ehrman, in his new book How Jesus Became God, writes this gem: 

The idea that Jesus is God is not an invention of modern times…it was the view of the very earliest Christians soon after Jesus’s death. (p. 3).

 Uh, say what? Now Jesus’s earliest followers believed he was God. Which is it? Ehrman subsequently elaborates in the book that “soon after Jesus’s death, the belief in his resurrection led some of his followers to say he was God” (p. 83). So, here is where Ehrman, I claim, explicitly contradicts himself. In one of Ehrman’s books Jesus’s immediate followers do not take him to be God, and such a title is only given to him decades later, whereas in Ehrman’s new book Jesus’s immediate followers labeled him divine right from the get-go. This is clearly a contradiction, to say the least.

Now, it could be the case that Ehrman simply changed his mind due to an examination of the evidence. There’s nothing wrong with this, right? Well, no. However, Ehrman makes no insinuation that this is what happened. Moreover, Ehrman always writes with the conviction like he’s giving you just the facts. I mean just look at his quote above from DJE; his assertion is explicit, and uncompromising. And anyone reading those sentences would never think that there was intellectual room to disagree. Yet, a couple years later the sentence is turned on its head, by the same person who wrote it.

So, the point is that Bart Ehrman, the layman’s tour guide of critical scholarship, is not always reliable as an authority in his own field of study. And these examples are not the only ones, trust me. Ehrman is inconsistent, and sometimes self-contradicting, and the even bigger lesson to be learned here is the subjectivity involved in scholarship today. We often hear of the “consensus of critical scholars,” but how reliable is this consensus, and how much heed should we pay to it when even the best known scholars can’t get their facts and convictions straight? I’m not saying we should completely jettison the so-called scholarly consensus, but perhaps such a consensus is not as valuable as we once thought.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Embodied Realism Part II: Embodied Truth

Let us continue our series of posts reviewing the philosophy of embodied realism as promulgated in the book Philosophy in the Flesh. In our last post we discovered that embodied realism claimed that, due to our levels of embodiment, the correspondence theory of truth could no longer be upheld. However, we came to realize that this assertion rested on mischaracterizations, misunderstandings, and poor epistemology. Nevertheless, embodied realism has another dog in the fight against classical realism and the correspondence theory of truth, namely, that of embodied truth.

Before I explicate what exactly the tenets are of embodied truth, I want to survey a quote about truth that the authors make:

Any truth must be in a humanly conceptualized and understandable form if it is to be a truth for us. If it’s not a truth for us, how can we make sense of its being a truth at all? (p. 106)

 This is quite strange. The authors are question-beggingly assuming that there are truths “for us.” But this is not something a classicist would concede. The proposition “the earth is round” is true regardless of how we conceptualize and understand it. In fact, said proposition in no way relies on human cognition in order to ground its truth. That is to say, the earth is round whether or not there is anyone around to contemplate its being round. So what is this talk of “truth for us?” You see, the authors are trying to sneak embodiment through the back door here. They seem to think that embodied cognition forces us to admit of truth as somehow being tied to that embodiment. But this only begs the question of what truth is in the first place!

Basically the authors are putting the cart before the horse. They’re trying to define truth in light of their idiosyncratic scientific “results” of embodied cognition. But before one can even embark in scientific investigation one already needs a theory of what truth is! So, the authors have their philosophy backwards, and thus it’s no wonder that their theories lead to such contradictory conclusions—we’ll see this claim come to fruition in future posts.

Now let us keep those remarks in mind and see what the author’s main theory of embodied truth is:

 A person takes a sentence as “true” of a situation if what he or she understands the sentence to be expressing accords with what he or she understand the situation to be. (p. 106)

 Before we even delve into the manifold problems with this, there’s one important thing the reader should understand. The authors here are explicating why a person identifies a statement to be true. But the problem here is that nowhere is it articulated regarding what truth actually is. To simply explain why a person recognizes a statement as true is all well and good, but it is not any type of theory of truth in and of itself—that is to say, what a person takes to be true is not the same as what truth actually is. The point here is that embodied realism has attempted to throw the correspondence theory of truth under the bus, yet it fails to give any competing theory to put in its place.  

Now that that’s been said, we can dissect this “theory” of embodied truth on its own terms. So, this theory seems to entail that a statement is true if what the statement expresses accords (corresponds?) with what a certain individual understands a certain state of affairs to be—isn’t this just a relativized version of the correspondence theory? The consequences of this theory are readily apparent. To run with the example above, we currently believe the earth to be round and spherical. Yet there once was a time when individuals believed the earth to be flat. Now obviously the two statements “the earth is round” and “the earth is flat” are mutually exclusive. Yet, on embodied truth they can both be true. Why? Because the individuals who affirmed the flatness of earth took the sentence “the earth is flat” to accord with what they understood the situation to be.

We see, then, that embodied truth is simply a form of relativism. In fact, the authors admit such: “Embodied truth is not, of course, absolute objective truth. It accords with how people use the word true, namely, relative to understanding (p. 107).” But the authors don’t see this as a problem, because while their truth isn’t objective, it isn’t purely subjective either: “Embodied truth is also not purely subjective truth. Embodiment keeps it from being purely subjective. Because we all have pretty much the same embodied basic-level and spatial-relations concepts, there will be an enormous range of shared ‘truths’ (p.107) [.]” Uh, what? So, truth isn’t objective, but it isn’t subjective either. Apparently there’s a third choice between the two that we’ve missed, despite this violating the laws of logic—those are just metaphorical don’t you know?

Now the fact that the authors are trying to wiggle a middle option between objectivity and subjectivity isn’t even the most laughable problem here. No. The most laughable problem is that they actually haven’t avoided the subjectivity of their theory of truth like they think they have. For they claim that since, as humans, we are embodied therefore we share our embodied concepts with each other. Um, ok, but this does not absolve their theory of truth from pure subjectivity. Remember that something is subjective if it relates to or is dependent on a person’s mind. And this is precisely what embodiment entails! In fact because it is embodied truth, this places it nice and neatly in the category of subjectivity. So far from embodied truth moving away from subjectivity, it is as subjective as one can get.

This obviously has drastic consequences for embodied truth, the most obvious consequence, while likewise being the most damaging, being that it’s self-refuting. You see, if truth is subjective and relative, then one cannot claim superiority of one truth claim over another. That is, one cannot say “X is objectively true,” rather they can only be say that X is true for them, but possibly not for you. Nor can they say that any truths existed prior to or in the absence of humans.

But why is this self-refuting? Well, keep in mind that embodied truth, and embodied realism, are philosophies and theories in and of themselves. That is, they make specific claims about what obtains in reality and how it obtains—if they didn’t then they need not be heeded. But this means that these theories are saying quite specifically “X is the case,” which doesn’t mean “only relative to me, or us, X is the case” but rather “X is the way the world works, period.” Yet how can this be if truth is relative and subjective? That is, how can they say that embodied realism is true, and metaphysical realism is false? Or how can they say that the correspondence theory is false, and embodied truth is true? Well, they cannot, and thus they cannot uphold the objective validity of their own worldview, which amounts to a contradiction.

Such is the philosophical wreckage of embodied realism.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Embodied Realism Part I: Correspondence Theory of Truth

After much prodding from Mike D over at The A-unicornist—which he has now stopped writing for, unfortunately—to read his Holy Bible on embodied cognition, namely Philosophy in the Flesh, I have begun to do just that. And rarely does a page goes by where I don’t find myself scribbling in the margins regarding the things I find fallacious. With that in mind I felt the need to write up a series of posts regarding the parts I vehemently disagree with as I read along. So stay tuned for many posts to come regarding Embodied Realism.
Embodied Realism (or Embodied Cognition), as articulated by Lakoff and Johnson, is predicated on a few themes: 1) The mind is embodied, 2) reason is mostly unconscious and 3) is structured by neural connections that conflate conceptual domains which lead to metaphor—which means that most of our concepts and cognition are metaphorical. Embodied Realism does not simply say that we need a body to reason, but, rather, that our reason itself is shaped and structured in unconscious ways by our embodiment.

My first bone to pick with Embodied Realism is its jettison of the correspondence theory of truth. The correspondence theory of truth basically says that a statement—what is called a truth-bearer—is true if it corresponds to an actual state of affairs—what is called a truth-maker--or obtains, in reality. As an example, the statement “There is a computer in front of me” is true if, in reality, there is actually a computer in front of me, and false if there is not.

It is this very theory that is called into question because of the supposed embodiment of cognition promulgated by embodied realism. To argue against the correspondence theory the authors attempt to demonstrate that concepts are embodied at the neural level, the phenomenological level, and the cognitive unconscious level. Let me illuminate these as best as I can, so we can articulate where the asserted difficulty arises.

The neural level basically regards the physical circuitry that characterizes, grounds, and structures all cognition and conception. The phenomenological level is the level that we are consciously aware of, and the level where we experience all of our qualia. And the cognitive unconscious level is the level of cognitive operation that evades our conscious subjective experience; that is, it is what structures our conscious experience, but is something that we have no internal access to—hence the term unconscious.

So, how does positing these different levels of embodiment call into question the theory of correspondence? Well, Lakoff and Johnson explain that “Truth claims at one level may be inconsistent with those at another.” In order to illustrate this problem, the authors discuss the embodiment of color concepts.  For example, consider the statement “Grass is green.” Surely we experience greenness inhering in grass, and thus this statement would seem to be true based on the correspondence theory of truth. However, the authors argue, this is only true at the phenomenological level of embodiment. On the neural level of embodiment “greenness” does not “inhere” in objects or things; rather, it is created by reflected light, our retinas, and our neural circuitry etc. The authors further articulate the alleged difficulty:
 At the neural level, green is a multiplace interactional property, while at the phenomenological level, green is a one-place predicate characterizing a property that inheres in an object. Here is the dilemma: A scientific truth claim based on knowledge about the neural level is contradicting a truth claim at the phenomenological level. The dilemma arises because the philosophical theory of truth as correspondence does not distinguish such levels and assumes that all truths can be stated at once from a neutral perspective.
 It is here where I believe the authors are mistaken, on multiple levels (see what I did there?).

Effects, formal and virtual
First, even though a Scholastic, like myself, would utter a proposition like “Grass is green” and indeed say that such a proposition is true, what they mean by such a statement is utterly foreign to what the authors attribute to any type of metaphysical realism—namely, that color is a single thing or property that inheres in substances. Thomist Peter Coffey illustrates:
 When, for instance, the normal perceiver apprehends snow as white, and spontaneously asserts that “snow is white,” he means not that the color-quality in question is wholly independent of the nature, structure, and conditions of his visual sense organs for its specific character as present to his consciousness.
 The point here is that when us Scholastics say “Grass is green” we don’t mean that there is a single property of greenness that inheres objectively in objects or things—that is, we do not say that color exists formally or actually. Rather, we would say that color exists virtually, or potentially. Therefore a Scholastic would agree with the authors when they say the following: “Colors are not objective; there is in the grass or the sky no greenness or blueness independent of retinas, color cones, neural circuitry, and brains.” Thus, to say that color exists virtually is to say that when all the necessary prerequisites are conjoined—the reflective properties of objects, our bodies and brains etc.—then and only then can we have the actuality of color. Upon taking this into account, proposing that color does not exist would only be true if effects could only obtain formally, which is something the Scholastic would not concede. For, to reiterate, effects can exist formally, but they can also exist virtually. And therefore to claim that only formal effects can obtain is to beg the question against the metaphysical realist.

Now, the significance here is that the statement “Grass is green” is still in fact objectively true, as long as what we mean by this statement is that grass is virtually, and not formally, green. However, the authors would still say that this cannot be an objective truth, because the property of greenness does not inhere objectively in the world. But to do so would be to conflate objective truth with truth obtaining objectively. That is to say, since color requires the existence of human embodiment for it to obtain, then color does obtain objectively, by definition. However, this doesn’t mean that the truth “Grass is green” is therefore not objective. Remember that all that’s required for the correspondence theory is for a truth-bearer to correspond to a truth-maker—again, either formally or virtually. And since grass is in fact (virtually) green, then the statement “Grass is green” is objectively true.

Levels of embodiment
Unfortunately (for the reader still awake at this point) this has all only constituted the first objection to the claims of Lakoff and Johnson. For the authors would still fire back that all my musings above assume a neutral perspective from which to promulgate my supposed truth. That is to say, my arguments above about the reality of color are all predicated on only one level of embodiment (or are they?) and to do so is to erect one level of embodiment as superior over another, thereby doing an injustice to the other levels. The authors articulate:
 Both the phenomenology-first and science-first strategies are inadequate in one way or other. If we take the phenomenology-first strategy, we miss what we know scientifically is true about color. We get the scientific metaphysics of color wrong. Our “truth conditions” do not reflect what we know to be true. If we take the science-first strategy, we do violence to the normal meaning of the word and to what ordinary people mean by “truth.”
 This is all to say that by claiming color exists virtually is to do damage to the phenomenological level of embodiment upon which color seems to exist formally. But my retort is this: so what? On the phenomenological view we can only talk about how we perceive sense qualities, and just because we perceive something does not mean it is there, or that it’s there in the fashion we perceive it to be, or that it inheres in the world. A perfect example to knock down the authors’ claims here is the experience of hallucinations. At the phenomenological level a hallucination is very real, in that we experience qualia with regards to said hallucination. But it is only at the neural level that we know that the hallucination is not actually real. And the crucial point is that everybody, including the authors, would take a "science-first strategy" here and claim that when somebody hallucinates a dead relative (for instance), the statement “my dead relative appeared to me” is unequivocally false. And the really unreasonable thing to do here would be to say that the existence of the dead relative is true at the phenomenological level, but just not at the neural level! Hence, it seems that, contrary to the authors, we must, and do, utilize certain levels of embodiment over and above others in different circumstances. Thus, there is no dilemma when one level of embodiment contradicts another.

So, the authors are simply mistaken to say that the correspondence theory is false for not distinguishing the different levels of embodiment. For the levels of embodiment do not at all call truth, as classically conceived, into question. In fact, we’ll see next post that this conception of truth is unavoidable, and that it is the truth of Embodied Realism that runs into various difficulties.