A Dilemma for Scientism

Professor Paul Moser discusses some problems with scientism in his book The Evidence for God: Religious Knowledge Reexamined:

5. A DILEMMA FOR SCIENTISM

Our dilemma will bear on positions (i)–(vi), given that it bears on the aforementioned core statements of naturalism satisfied by those positions, namely:

Core ontological naturalism: every real entity either consists of or at least owes its existence to the objects acknowledged by the hypothetically completed empirical sciences (that is, the objects of a natural ontology).

Core methodological naturalism: every cognitively legitimate method of acquiring or revising beliefs consists of or is grounded in the hypothetically completed methods of the empirical sciences (that is, in natural methods).

These are core statements of ontological and methodological naturalism, and they offer the empirical sciences as the criterion for metaphysical and cognitive genuineness. They entail ontological and methodological monism in that they acknowledge the empirical sciences as the single standard for genuine metaphysics and cognition. These core positions therefore promise us remarkable explanatory unity in metaphysics and cognition. Still, we must ask: is their promise trustworthy? For brevity, let’s call the conjunction of these two positions Core Scientism, while allowing for talk of both its distinctive ontological component and its distinctive methodological component.

Core Scientism is not itself a thesis offered by any empirical science. In particular, neither its ontological component nor its methodological component is a thesis, directly or indirectly, of an empirical science or a group of empirical sciences. Neither component is endorsed or implied by the empirical scientific work of physics, chemistry, astronomy, geology, biology, anthropology, psychology, sociology, or any other natural or social empirical science or any group thereof. As a result, no research fundable by the National Science Foundation, for instance, offers Core Scientism as a scientific thesis. In contrast, the National Endowment for the Humanities would be open to funding certain work centered on Core Scientism, perhaps as part of a project in philosophy, particularly in philosophical metaphysics or epistemology.

Core Scientism proposes a universality of scope for the empirical sciences (see its talk of “every real entity” and “every cognitively legitimate method”) that the sciences themselves consistently avoid. Individual sciences are typically distinguished by the particular ranges of empirical data they seek to explain: biological data for biology, anthropological data for anthropology, and so on. Similarly, empirical science as a whole is typically distinguished by its attempt to explain all relevant empirical data and, accordingly, by the range of all relevant empirical data. Given this typical constraint on empirical science, we should be surprised indeed if the empirical sciences had anything to say about whether entities outside the domain of the empirical sciences (say, in the domain of theology) are nonexistent. At any rate, we should be suspicious in that case.

Sweeping principles about the nature of cognitively legitimate inquiry in general, particularly principles involving entities allegedly outside the domain of the empirical sciences, are not the possession or the product of the empirical sciences themselves. Instead, such principles emerge from philosophy or from some product of philosophy, perhaps even misguided philosophy. Accordingly, Core Scientism is a philosophical thesis, and is not the kind of scientific thesis characteristic of the empirical sciences. The empirical sciences flourish, have flourished, and will flourish without commitment to Core Scientism or to any such philosophical principle. Clearly, furthermore, opposition to Core Scientism is not opposition either to science (regarded as a group of significant cognitive disciplines) or to genuine scientific contributions.

Proponents of Core Scientism will remind us that their scientism invokes not the current empirical sciences but rather the hypothetically completed empirical sciences. Accordingly, they may be undisturbed by the absence of Core Scientism from the theses of the current empirical sciences. Still, the problem at hand persists for Core Scientism, because we have no reason to hold that Core Scientism is among the claims or the implications of the hypothetically completed empirical sciences. A general problem is that specific predictions about what the completed sciences will include are notoriously risky and arguably unreliable (even though this robust fact has not hindered stubborn forecasters of science). The often turbulent, sometimes revolutionary history of the sciences offers no firm basis for reasonable confidence in such speculative predictions, especially when a sweeping philosophical claim is involved. In addition, nothing in the current empirical sciences makes it likely that the completed sciences would include Core Scientism as a thesis or an implication. The monopolistic hopes of some naturalists for the sciences, therefore, are hard to anchor in reality.

The problem with Core Scientism stems from its distinctive monopolistic claims. Like many philosophical claims, it makes claims about every real entity and every cognitively legitimate method for acquiring or revising beliefs. The empirical sciences, as actually practiced, are not monopolistic, nor do we have any reason to think that they should or will become so. Neither individually nor collectively do they offer scientific claims about every real entity or every cognitively legitimate method for belief formation. Advocates of an empirical science monopoly would do well to attend to this empirical fact.

The empirical sciences rightly limit their scientific claims to their proprietary domains, even if wayward scientists sometimes overextend themselves, and depart from empirical science proper, with claims about every real entity or every cognitively legitimate method. (The latter claims tend to sell trendy books, even though they fail as science.) Support for this observation comes from the fact that the empirical sciences, individually and collectively, are logically and cognitively neutral on such matters as the existence of God and the veracity of certain kinds of religious experience. Accordingly, each such science logically and cognitively permits the existence of God and the veracity of certain kinds of religious experience. We have no reason, moreover, to suppose that the hypothetically completed empirical sciences should or will differ from the actual empirical sciences in this respect. Naturalists, at any rate, have not shown otherwise; nor has anyone else. This comes as no surprise, however, once we recognize that the God of traditional monotheism does not qualify or function as an object of empirical science. Accordingly, we do well not to assume, without needed argument, that the objects of empirical science exhaust the objects of reality in general. An analogous point holds for the methods of empirical science: we should not assume uncritically that they exhaust the methods of cognitively legitimate belief formation in general.

Proponents of Core Scientism might grant that it is not, itself, a claim of the empirical sciences, but they still could propose that Core Scientism is cognitively justified by the empirical sciences. (A “claim” of the empirical sciences is, let us say, a claim logically entailed by the empirical sciences, whereas a claim justified by the sciences need not be thus logically entailed.) This move would lead to a focus on the principles of cognitive justification appropriate to the empirical sciences. Specifically, what principles of cognitive justification allegedly combine with the (hypothetically completed) empirical sciences to justify Core Scientism? More relevantly, are any such principles of justification required, logically or cognitively, by the (hypothetically completed) empirical sciences themselves? No such principles of justification seem logically required, because the (hypothetically completed) empirical sciences logically permit that Core Scientism is not justified. Whether such principles of justification are cognitively required depends on the cognitive principles justified by the (hypothetically completed) empirical sciences, and the latter matter clearly remains unsettled. We have, at any rate, no salient evidence for thinking that the (hypothetically completed) empirical sciences will include or justify cognitive principles that justify Core Scientism. The burden for delivering such evidence is squarely on naturalists, and it remains to be discharged.

Moser, Paul K.. The Evidence for God: Religious Knowledge Reexamined (pp. 76-80). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.

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Plato, Moser, and Existentially Non-Neutral Knowledge

I was reading the entry on Philosophy of Religion in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.  If you don’t know the SEP, it is an online encyclopedia of philosophy that solicits its entries from professional philosophers and is peer reviewed to ensure the quality of its entries.  As with anything, sometimes it fails to be perfectly neutral, as each author presents what he thinks is most relevant, but since the replies are done by professionals, often those outstanding in the areas they are writing about, and since they are vetted and peer-reviewed by other professionals, the general level of the SEP is very high quality.  It would be perfectly acceptable, for example, to cite the SEP in professional publications. In other words, it is not, for example, Wikipedia.

In the course of the entry, I came across a description of an argument strategy employed by Dr. Paul Moser, Professor of Philosophy at Loyola University, expert in Theory of Knowledge and Philosophy of Religion, author of 8 books and 151 published articles, editor of 16 books, etc. Here’s his Curriculum Vitae for the curious. And a list of some of his books. I mention all this to establish beyond any reasonable doubt that Moser is an expert in the philosophy of religion and also in theory of knowledge.  This is relevant since his argument involves both.  Here’s the bit from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Taking a very different approach to theism, Paul Moser has recently criticized what he refers to as the preoccupation in philosophy of religion with what he calls “spectator evidence for God,” evidence that can be assessed without involving any interior change that would transform a person morally and religiously. Eschewing fideism, Moser holds that when one seeks God and willingly allows oneself to be transformed by God’s perfect love, one’s very life can become evidence of the reality of God (see Moser 2008, 2010). While this proposal may worry secular philosophers of religion, Moser is not out of keeping with the pre-Christian Platonic tradition that maintained that inquiry into the good, the true, and the beautiful involved inquiry in which the inquirer needed to endeavor to be good, true, and beautiful.

Being me, I made it into a picture card, so

GenericManSpectatorKnowledgeOfGod

The picture isn’t of anyone in particular. It’s a detail from a painting by Nicolai Fechin that I use sometimes. It didn’t seem appropriate to use a picture of Moser, since these aren’t his words, but a description of an argument strategy of his.

To the point at hand: It’s important to note a couple of things:

1. This is not an argument. This is a description of an argument strategy by Moser.

2. I have not studied Moser’s work as of this writing. The above argument strategy is intriguing—I have had some ideas along similar lines—and I found it interesting enough to (1) share it on Twitter, and (2) get a copy of Moser’s book, which I will be reading in the near future.

Naturally, Twitter being Twitter, I was immediately attacked for my “bad argument” by an angry atheist, the fact I wasn’t making an argument notwithstanding, the fact that Moser’s argument is not even being presented here, but only described notwithstanding—naturally, said angry Australian atheist felt that he had all he needed to dismiss the ‘argument’ in question out of hand.  This is not untypical of the level of discourse one finds on Twitter:

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Now, since just from the description it is clear that Moser is not making either of the following arguments,

  1. I imagine God exists.
  2. This makes me feel better.
  3. ∴ God exists.

or

  1. I have certain feelings.
  2. ∴ God exists.

it’s clear that MrOzAtheist is indeed constructing a straw man, his protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, and I (and others) called him on it. He belongs to that particularly noxious breed of online atheists who insist on telling you what you really mean and then ‘refuting’ this “real meaning” that he has told you you really mean—in other words, they have raised the straw man to a high art form.

In their defense (sort of), I honestly think that many of them are incapable, for whatever reason, of conceiving that there are or could be serious and substantial theistic arguments.  They are so ideologically blinded by their atheism, that they are literally unable to recognize the possibility that there might be strong evidence or good arguments which dispute their position. This is one reason that it is always unpleasant to argue with ideologues.  No doubt many of them have encountered Christian ideologues and are unable to see that they have become exactly what they think they are against.  Personally, I have primarily encountered this kind of ideological blindness among atheists, feminists, and Objectivists (i.e. Ayn Rand cultists).

I do have a point concerning Moser’s position and ideological blindness.  I think it is noncontroversial that certain belief-commitments and emotional commitments can induce a kind of blindness or inability to see, or to fairly or reasonably evaluate evidence and arguments.  In other words, one’s cognitive powers can become corrupted or distorted both by certain convictions and/or by certain passions.

If this is so, then it is entirely possible (and in fact very likely) that human cognitive powers, our reason, is not merely an existentially neutral instrument, as one of the usually unquestioned dogmas of the Enlightenment/Modernity suggests.  Indeed, going back at least to Plato, in the Image of Cave and elsewhere, the Western philosophical tradition has usually maintained that human cognition is existentially non-neutral, that there are things that one cannot know, that there are things one is necessarily blind to, depending on the condition of one’s ψυχή (psychē or soul).  Here’s an enjoyable presentation of Plato’s Cave Image in claymation on YouTube.

Plato compares the νοῦς, the intellect, to “the eye of the ψυχή” or “eye of the mind” and extends his analogy, arguing that just as it is not possible for one to turn one’s eyes around to see what is behind one without turning one’s head or whole body around also, neither is it possible to turn one’s νοῦς to the higher realities without a turning-around or reorientation of one’s entire soul or ψυχή in the direction of the true and the good, a μετάνοια. In other words, one must be in a certain state of the soul analogous to health, which Plato calls ἀρετή, virtue, to be able to see or comprehend certain truths about what is.  Those who are not in the right state of soul, those who are vicious, will be unable to see what truly is, due to their being “turned” the wrong way, like the prisoners in Plato’s cave, who are not only facing the wrong way, but chained in such a way that they are unable to turn around.

Plato’s Cave Image is complicated (I hold that it recapitulates the entire Republic in miniature, occurring at the dramatic center of the dialogue, or the 7/12ths point—I don’t have time here to get into the musical significance of 7/12ths or Plato’s musical compositional structure)—but one thing it safe to say is that one primary meaning of the “chains” that bind the prisoners in the cave in place are their beliefs about the nature of what is.  Plato has in mind, I think, the ordinary beliefs human beings tend to form in all cultures as well as the ordinary beliefs human beings tend to form by growing up in a given culture—but in a democratic society, there is no reason one cannot forge one’s own chains by the adoption of an ideology.

This phenomenon is particularly pronounced in the case of ethics, as C. S. Lewis notes in The Abolition of Man.  One who has not been raised well and educated well (these are the same) will be unable to apprehend the principles of ethics:

CSLewisVirtueTraining

Lewis is of course simply affirming the classical teaching of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, as well as the Christian tradition including thinkers like St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas.  Not everyone is equally capable of apprehending the good; in particular, the evil cannot do so, and this blindness to the good is, in no small part, what enables the evil to be evil. We are apt to say things like, “How could anyone do a thing like that? Couldn’t he see how wrong it is?” Sadly, no, he couldn’t.  Here’s Aristotle:

AristotleRightEducation

Aristotle emphasizes the role of passions, and particularly of pleasure and pain in human education/upbringing.  Philosopher Edward Feser has an illuminating account of Aquinas’ teaching that disorder desire, particularly disordered sexual desire, has directly corruptive effect on the mind.  In “What’s the deal with sex? Part II” Feser discusses Aquinas’ argument that the first “daughter of lust” (there are eight) is “blindness of mind”:

Now, when, for whatever reason, we take pleasure in some thing or activity, we are strongly inclined to want to think that it is good, even if it is not good; and when, for whatever reason, we find some idea attractive, we are strongly inclined to want to think that it is true and reasonable, even if it is neither. Everyone knows this; you don’t have to be a Thomist to see that much. The habitual binge drinker or cocaine snorter takes such pleasure in his vice that he refuses to listen to those who warn him that he is setting himself up for serious trouble. The ideologue is so in love with a pet idea that he will search out any evidence that seems to confirm it while refusing to consider all the glaring evidence against it. The talentless would-be actor or writer is so enamored of the prospect of wealth and fame that he refuses to see that he’d be better advised to pursue some other career. And so forth. That taking pleasure in what is in fact bad or false can impair the intellect’s capacity to see what is good and true is a familiar fact of everyday life.

Now, there is no reason whatsoever why things should be any different where sex is concerned. Indeed — and this is part of Aquinas’s point — precisely because sexual pleasure is unusually intense, it is even more likely than other pleasures are to impair our ability to perceive what is true and good when what we take pleasure in is something that is in fact bad. In particular, habitually indulging one’s desire to carry out sexual acts that are disordered will tend to make it harder and harder for one to see that they are disordered. For one thing, the pleasure a person repeatedly takes in those acts will give the acts the false appearance of goodness; for another, the person will be inclined to look for reasons to regard the acts as good or at least harmless, and disinclined to look for, or give a dispassionate hearing to, reasons to think them bad. Hence indulgence in disordered sexual behavior has a tendency to impair one’s ability to perceive the true and the good, particularly in matters of sexual morality. In short, sexual vice makes you stupid.

Put another way: certain kinds of knowledge, knowledge about the highest things, e.g. the good, the beautiful, and the true, are existentially non-neutral kinds of knowledge: there are truths, that is, which are evident only to the wise and virtuous, because folly and vice, of themselves, have a corruptive effect on our natural cognitive powers.

It seems perfectly evident to me that this is true.  The Enlightenment conception of reason as calculative ratio is a wholly unwarranted reduction of reason to one of its lower functions, although it is perhaps true that reason as a merely instrumental ratio is a typical case of existentially neutral knowledge; at least I see no reason in principle why vice or folly or ideological dogmatism would make a person less able to do mathematical calculations and certain other types of reckoning.  But it seems flatly absurd to assert that all knowledge is like this.  Those who do seem to be people who are paradoxically and paradigmatically blinded by an ideology, namely, scientism.  Since their ideology requires them to conceive all knowledge as scientific knowledge, and they almost always insist that scientific knowledge is existentially neutral knowledge, they must deny that there is anything that can be known to the wise and virtuous that cannot be known to the unwise and vicious—despite the fact that this is evidently false.

To return to Moser’s position: if I read it correctly, Moser is asserting that knowledge of God is not a case of existentially neutral knowledge, or what he calls “spectator evidence of God,” but rather argues that evidence of God cannot be properly apprehended or accessed “without involving any interior change that would transform a person morally and religiously.”  In other words, to come to know God will necessarily be an existentially transformational event for a human being which will by its very nature involve a reorientation or “turning around” of the ψυχή—Plato’s “turning around” of the soul becomes in Latin convertio, conversion.  One cannot see God without a turning around of the soul (as a condition of the possibility) and one cannot see God without a being turned around of the soul (as a necessary consequence).

Again, I have not actually studied Moser’s argument.  So, necessarily, I am not elucidating Moser’s argument nor defending it. What I am doing here is showing how something like what I understand him to be saying is plausible—and also how it is manifestly not “God exists, because of feelings I have.”

Atheists tend to become angry and indignant when they are told that their atheism is a result of cognitional malfunction, but neither anger nor indignation is a sound counterargument.  As I have written elsewhere (following Plantinga), if God does exist, then it is highly likely that properly functioning human cognitive powers are such as to dispose us to believe this, and in a warrant-conferring way; and it would also then be the case that atheism is necessarily a result of some kind of cognitive malfunction or cognitive blindness.  This would explain why around 90% of human beings (at least) in all times and places do in fact form a belief in the existence of God or the divine.  Atheists need to account for this phenomenon, and needless to say, “atheists are smarter than everyone else” is false (although it is obvious that many atheists do believe this, and indeed, the pleasure they take in feeling themselves smarter than everyone else is one of the main motivators of their atheism).

It seems to me that “cognitive God blindness”, something loosely analogous to color-blindness, is a much better explanation—especially when one recognizes that some kinds of cognitive blindness are willfully motivated on the basis of ideological belief-commitments and passions.  Atheism is certainly an excellent candidate for a willfully-motivated dyscognition; recognition of the existence of God would require a radical reorientation not only of one’s belief-structure and comprehensive worldview but of one’s entire existence or being-in-the-world (to use Heidegger’s apt term)—no part of one’s life is likely to be unaltered.  And if one has a strong desire not to alter one’s life in a fundamental way (perhaps because one is habituated to some vice that he recognizes he would have to give up, and therefore the pleasure he his habituated himself to experience in indulging the vice—as, for example, St. Augustine’s addiction to womanizing), then one eo ipso has a strong motivation to prevent oneself from seeing evidence that might force one to recognize the existence of God, a recognition which would necessarily result in the upheaval of one’s life.

It seems likely that a common motivation for atheism in modernity is our peculiar conception of freedom as autonomy combined with our implicit belief that freedom as autonomy is the highest good—in such a conception, the existence of God becomes existentially intolerable, because God is necessarily a threat to my personal, infinite autonomy, more, God is necessarily incompatible with such a conception of personal autonomy.  If God is God, then I am not God, and modernity teaches that not only am I God, but that it is both my right and my highest good to be God.  Both these things are false, of course, since I am not God, but I cannot even maintain the fantasy of being God, if God truly exists and confronts me as God.  It also seems likely that the root of contemporary Western nihilism lies somewhere in this area; see for example David Bentley Hart’s “Christ and Nothing“, or consider Jacobi’s remark, contra Fichte, (which incidentally is from the same essay where Jacobi uses the word “nihilism” for the first time in a serious philosophical context):

JacobiGodOrNothing

To sum up:

  1. I promise a fuller account of Moser’s position once I have worked through his book.
  2. It should be obvious that it is possible both (1) that there is existentially non-neutral knowledge and (2) knowledge of God is almost certainly of this sort.
  3. The concept of existentially non-neutral knowledge as articulated by Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Pascal, Lewis, and others cannot be dismissed out of hand as a mere appeal to feelings. This is a completely absurd straw man that barely merits even the minimal response of pointing out that it is a straw man.

The Authors of the Gospels: Mark

The four Gospels of the New Testament appear under slightly different names in the most ancient manuscripts, for example, sometimes the Gospel of Mark is τὸ κατὰ Μᾶρκον εὐαγγέλιον, “The Good News According to Mark” and sometimes it is merely κατὰ Μᾶρκον, “According to Mark.” There is no case of one of the four canonical Gospels appearing without a name, as “anonymous.”

Who wrote them? Holy Tradition ascribes the Gospel of Mark to the Apostle Mark, a companion of St. Peter, and the Gospel of Luke to the Apostle Luke, a companion of St. Paul. Mark and Luke are not among the original Twelve Apostles who were the companions of Christ, but are among the Seventy Apostles that Christ sends abroad in his name:

Luke 10:

The Mission of the Seventy

10 After this the Lord appointed seventy others, and sent them on ahead of him, two by two, into every town and place where he himself was about to come. 2 And he said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; pray therefore the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. 3 Go your way; behold, I send you out as lambs in the midst of wolves. 4 Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and salute no one on the road. 5 Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace be to this house!’ 6 And if a son of peace is there, your peace shall rest upon him; but if not, it shall return to you. 7 And remain in the same house, eating and drinking what they provide, for the laborer deserves his wages; do not go from house to house. 8 Whenever you enter a town and they receive you, eat what is set before you; 9 heal the sick in it and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ 10 But whenever you enter a town and they do not receive you, go into its streets and say, 11 ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off against you; nevertheless know this, that the kingdom of God has come near.’ 12 I tell you, it shall be more tolerable on that day for Sodom than for that town.

Likewise, Holy Tradition ascribes the authorship of the Gospel According to Matthew to the Apostle Matthew and the Gospel According to John to the Apostle John, both of whom were among the original Twelve Apostles.

No one should be surprised that the Christian Tradition maintains that the four Gospels were written by the men whose names they bear.

As many of you are also probably aware, the Apostolic authorship of the Gospels has been questioned by modern Biblical Criticism.  Is this a serious cause for concern for traditional Christians? Should we entertain serious doubts about the ascription by Holy Tradition of Apostolic authorship to the Gospels?

In a word: No.

Why not? To put the matter as briefly as possible—I do not intend to lay out the entire case here, but only to give you a sketch of the situation—modern historical-Biblical criticism is an essentially secular approach to scriptural texts that, modeling itself after the methods of natural science, builds into its entire approach a number of fundamentally secular assumptions.  That is to say, it reasons in the following pattern: “Under the ‘neutral’ assumption that these texts are not divinely inspired, then X, Y, and Z.”

An excellent illustration of this is the modern dating of the Gospels. Countless scholars and sources will report that, for example, Mark is the earliest Gospel and was written no earlier than 66-70 A.D.

Why should we think this? In this case, Wikipedia, while not reliable in itself, seems reasonably well-sourced and typical.  Let’s have a look at what it says, first concerning the Synoptic Problem:

The synoptic problem and the historicity of Mark

The gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke bear a striking resemblance to each other, so much so that their contents can easily be set side by side in parallel columns. Their close relationship is termed the synoptic problem, and has led to a number of hypotheses explaining their interdependence. The most widely accepted hypothesis is that Mark was the first gospel and was used as a source by both Matthew and Luke, together with considerable additional material. The strongest argument for this is the fact that Matthew and Luke only agree with each other in their sequence of stories and events when they also agree with Mark.[13]

The 19th century recognition of Mark as the earliest gospel led to the belief that it must therefore be the most reliable.[14] This conclusion was overturned by two works published in the early decades of the 20th century: in 1901 William Wrede argued that Mark’s sequence of episodes is in fact an artificial construct with theological motivation; and in 1919 Karl Ludwig Schmidt showed how the links between the episodes are the invention of the writer, thus undermining the gospel’s claim to be a reliable guide to the chronology of Jesus’s mission.[15] The modern consensus is that Mark’s purpose was to present a theological message rather than to write history.[14] [Italics mine]

So, the view that Mark is the earliest Gospel, while not unreasonable, is still only the most widely accepted hypothesis, e.g. something that falls a bit short of proof beyond any possible doubt or even beyond a reasonable doubt.  And the hypothesis was formulated under the not apparently regarded as false assumption that Mark is not an composition informed by theological considerations.  But what follows from that?

We are told “in 1901 William Wrede argued that Mark’s sequence of episodes is in fact an artificial construct with theological motivation“; we are also told that “The modern consensus is that Mark’s purpose was to present a theological message rather than to write a history.”  Both of these claims are sourced to footnote 14, which is Williamson, Lamar (1983). Mark. John Knox Press.  And what does Williamson have to tell us on this point? Only that Mark’s primary intention is to announce a message rather than to write a history:

Mark

It should hardly come as surprise that the writer of a Gospel has the primary intention of announcing the Christian message, rather than conforming to the norms of 19-21st century historiography.  Nor does this primary intention of the part of the writer of Mark necessarily say anything about the historical accuracy of the Gospel of Mark.  Williamson, for his part, only notes that the historical dimension of the Gospel is not a major concern of the author, not that the author is engaging is historical falsification, or that the genuinely historical portions of the Gospel are somehow necessarily unreliable.

But what about “in 1901 William Wrede argued that Mark’s sequence of episodes is in fact an artificial construct with theological motivation“, also sourced to Williamson? Well, Williamson does not in fact mention anything from 1901, and only mentions Wrede on p. 13 of his introduction, to credit him with “a brilliant and influential explanation” of Jesus’ apparent caginess in his claims to be the Messiah, an “elaborate explanation” which Williamson nonetheless rejects, and—more importantly for our purposes—has nothing whatever to do with the Wikipedia’s assertion that the author of Mark was engaged in “creating an artificial construct with theological motivation.” Neither the words “artificial” nor “construct” seem to appear anywhere in Williamson’s book.  Before we leave Williamson, let us note that he apparently holds that Mark was written c. 70 A.D.  More on that below.

Let’s go on. The “artificial construct with theological motivation” phrasing is apparently the invention from whole cloth of the Wikipedia editor(s), but it is, in itself, a highly ambiguous phrase: it seems to suggest falsehood without actually asserting it. Isn’t any writing “an artificial construct” in the sense of being a product of art, rather than nature?  What about the Wikipedia’s more robust claim that “in 1919 Karl Ludwig Schmidt showed how links between the episodes are the invention of the writer, thus undermining the gospel’s claim to be a reliable guide to the chronology of Jesus’s mission.” Here we have what seems to be a much less weaselly way of saying that the author of Mark simply made up false things, the “invention of the author.” Let’s source it.  This time we are directed to footnote 15, which is the entry on the Gospel of Mark by Marcus Joel in Eerdman’s Dictionary of the Bible.  Now since there is no such person as “Marcus Joel” and the entry in Eerdman’s is by Joel Marcus, I’m just going to assume that’s what Wikipedia meant to say—Wikipedia: proving daily that “you get what you pay for.”

Does Joel Marcus’ entry on the Gospel of Mark back up Wikipedia’s claim that “in 1919 Karl Ludwig Schmidt showed how links between the episodes are the invention of the writer, thus undermining the gospel’s claim to be a reliable guide to the chronology of Jesus’s mission“?  No, it does not.  What Marcus says, and all he says, is that Schmidt contended that this was the case, as a matter of historical fact, and that the inference that Mark is “not a reliable guide to the chronology of Jesus’ ministry” has been widely accepted:

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As to the nature of Schmidt’s case, and how exactly he purports to know that some parts of the Gospel are invented by the author, we are not told.  Note that the Wikipedia claims that Schmidt showed this, whereas the source it uses to support this only says Schmidt contended this.  Certainly it would make my life as a scholar easier of all it took to show that something is the case was to contend that it is the case!

Wikipedia certainly hasn’t made its case yet. Let’s see if we can track down Schmidt’s case, shall we?  Why not start with the Wikipedia entry on Karl Ludwig Schmidt himself, wherein it is claimed “In 1919, his book Der Rahmen der Geschichte Jesu (“The Framework of the Story of Jesus”) showed that Mark’s chronology is the invention of the evangelist.[2] Using form criticism, Schmidt showed that an editor had assembled the narrative out of individual scenes that did not originally have a chronological order.[3]”

Here’s that same “showed” language.  This time, the source is pp. 5-7 of Theissen, Gerd and Annette Merz. The historical Jesus: a comprehensive guide. Fortress Press. 1998. translated from German (1996 edition).  Do Theissen and Merz give is any evidence, for example, Schmidt’s argument?  They do not.  They do, however, seem to be the source of the “showed” language:

Screen Shot 2016-06-17 at 12.34.05 AM.png

Here we have not only “showed” but “demonstrated.”  I don’t want to question Schmidt’s credentials and competence, but I would actually like to see his argument before accepting it, rather than endless second-hand reports of what he supposedly showed. He apparently used something called form criticism to do it.  Let’s take a look at that, shall we?

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Would you be shocked to learn that “form criticism” is now regarded as an entirely discredited method?  Are you surprised that the results of a now wholly discredited method are still being stated as facts?  Does it surprise you that no scholars today would acknowledge the soundness of Schmidt’s method, but nonetheless will blithely continue to say that his work demonstrates or shows or proves X, Y, or Z?

If any of these things surprise you, welcome to the world of textual scholarship, where ridiculous claims based on ridiculous methods can live on literally for centuries even when the methods, theories, and ideas that led to the claims are considered thoroughly discredited, outdated, flawed, debunked, or which “must be considered suspect.”

In other words,

  1. Schmidt used a fallacious method to argue something;
  2. Despite recognition of the fallacious nature of Schmidt’s method, we are still to take the conclusions of his arguments as fact;
  3. Because reasons.

So what have we learned? Two things.

1. Despite all the smoke, noise, and assertion, we have not actually been given any good reason to think the author of the Gospel of Mark was inventing anything, and

2. A principle well enunciated by former prosecutor and legal commentator Vincent Bugliosi (the prosecutor of Charles Manson):

VincentBugliosiOneSentence

I really had planned to get into some other claims found on Wikipedia, and common in modern Biblical scholarship, for example:

The Gospel of Mark is anonymous.[6] A tradition beginning in the early 2nd century with Papias of Hierapolis (c.AD 125) ascribes it to Mark the Evangelist, a companion and interpreter of the apostle Peter, but most scholars do not accept Papias’ claim.[7] It was probably written c.AD 66–70, during Nero’s persecution of the Christians in Rome or the Jewish revolt, as suggested by internal references to war in Judea and to persecution.[8]

6. Sanders 1995, p. 63-64.
7. Burkett 2002, pp. 155–6.
8. Perkins 1998, p. 241.

Footnote 6: Wikipedia says that “the Gospel of Mark is anonymous”, according to Sanders 1995. However, footnote 6 is the only reference to Sanders on the page.  No such work appears in the Sources.  I suppose I could try to find Sanders.

Footnote 7: We are told that “most scholars do not accept Papias’ claim” about the authorship of the Gospel of Mark.  Wikipedia’s source is valid, for once.  It does indeed state that most scholars, or at least “most critical scholars” do not accept Papias’ claim:

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Of course, the source 1. doesn’t give us any evidence that the claim is true, that “most critical scholars do not accept Papias’ claim.”  But let’s just grant it; it’s probably true.  It still gives us no reason to think “most critical scholars” are correct not to accept Papias’ claim. We saw above that “critical scholars” seem to think that Schmidt had shown something very important about the Gospel of Mark, even while they admit his method was radically flawed.

One of the things that I am thankful for is that my discipline, philosophy, has proven resistant (not immune) to this very bad scholarly habit of what philosopher David Stove described as “sabotaging logical expressions,” that is, replacing claims like “such and such is the case” with claims like “most scholars think such and such is the case,” which are of course two entirely different claims and two entirely different sorts of claims.

Burkett’s short passage blithely asserts that “both the Proto-Orthodox and the Gnostics attributed their writings to  to apostles” etc., without bothering to explain such things as why there are no anonymous manuscripts; how it is possible that all the Proto-Orthodox Christians all over the world could pull off the hoax of adding an author to an anonymous manuscript at the same time over the vast Roman Empire without anyone noticing; why the Gnostics were called out as obvious liars and forgers when they did this (because the ancients had no more love for fraud than we do) but the Proto-Orthodox were able to get away with it (because the ancients were too stupid or ignorant to understand the concept of fraud).  Burkett presents no evidence that the Gospel of Mark was ever anonymous; he just assumes it, and then makes up a wildly implausible post hoc “explanation”, which he apparently didn’t think about very hard, and apparently hopes no one else thinks about very hard either.  Thought through, his claim amounts to something like this “Both authors of texts and plagiarists attribute writings to people in order to justify their claims of authorship.” He seems unaware that, while this is true, there is a distinction between the true attribution of a work to an author and a false attribution of a work; he just blandly notes that both groups do, in fact, attribute a work to an author, as if this fact all by itself made both attributions equally suspect.

Footnote 8: This one concerns the dating of the Gospel, specifically to c. 66-70 A.D.  What does our source tell us? Once again, we have a source-which-is-not-a-source:

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We are asked to believe that Mark was written c. 66-70 A.D. on the authority of Perkins. Perkins, however, is simply repeating a claim made by Donahue, whoever that is.

Do you feel like you are going mad yet?

In order to even begin to evaluate the claims that Mark is not the author of Mark and that the Gospel of Mark was written c. 66-70 A.D., I would have to track down (minimally) Sanders and Donahue. And the odds are high that one or both of them will just be repeating a claim made somewhere else by someone else, rather than presenting an argument—because that is how the game is played.  If I am lucky, they’ll provide me with their source(s) for the claim so I could continue to dig.

But for now, I’m tired, and this post has already grown far longer than I intended it to be. I only wanted to convince you all that the claims that Gospel of Mark wasn’t written by Mark, and was written 33-37 years after the death of Christ are far from being facts known with something like certainty, but are rather theories (and not in the strong scientific sense of the term either) based on a variety of suppositions and hypotheses.  Alas, I wasn’t able to do that as thoroughly as I wanted to, because I have so far been entirely unable to locate the actual arguments for these claims (not that this fact makes the claims more plausible).  Instead I have got lost in the bewildering maze of scholars citing scholars citing other scholars in a giant academic circle.  Being a scholar myself, I don’t know why I should have expected otherwise; I suppose, again, it is because my discipline, philosophy, whatever else you say about it, does not (for the most part) fear actual arguments.

However, I hope I have succeeded in convincing you, by this little descent into the scholarly rabbit hole, that you ought not to rely very heavily on the words of or even the consensus of scholars.  “The scholarly consensus” makes it sound as if all the scholars have actually examined the matter and most of them have come to the same conclusion about it; this is not the case: far more often, a “scholarly consensus” results from some scholar (e.g. Schmidt) propounding a theory, and it getting “picked up” in the literature, with the next generation of scholars (and the next, and the next, etc.) simply being taught it as established orthodoxy.

I will take up the question of the authorship and dating of the Gospels another time.  Until then: don’t believe everything you read, neither on Wikipedia nor in scholarly sources.  Many scholars would rather die than admit “I don’t know.” But you should never be ashamed of those words: as Socrates taught, they are the beginning of real wisdom.