Chopra wants me to officially endorse his new paradigm of consciousness

I got an email from one of the Deepakity’s assistants two nights ago, which said this:

Deepak wanted me to share this letter with you and wondered if you would consider signing it along with 1,000 others [sic] scientists.

Of course I knew, based on experience, that this was something I would probably refuse; but I did read it.  Here is Deepak’s cover letter and then the “statement” we were asked to endorse are below.  Before posting all of this, I asked and got permission from Chopra’s assistant, for which I’m grateful.

The cover letter from Chopra was also sent to several equesterian atheists and, I suppose, to others I don’t know.

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General wording? I don’t think so. Here’s the statement we were asked to sign (my emphasis at end):

Science Must Face Reality: In Support of Consciousness

There’s a general feeling that science has advanced to the point that it can answer the two most important questions facing it. What is the universe made of? What is the biological basis of consciousness? If these two mysteries are finally solved, a true Theory of Everything cannot be far off. We are concerned, however, that the old scientific paradigm is not adequate to provide answers to either question. The old paradigm, under which we were trained, along with every working scientist, reduces difficult problems to smaller, more manageable parts. Experiments are conducted, data is collected, and findings are reached. In this way objective knowledge emerges that a consensus can accept, whether it concerns the behavior of moving bodies in Newton’s time or the existence of the Higgs boson in ours.

The mainstream view in science is that this general method of exploring Nature will continue to succeed, based on the enormous progress science has made in the past. We don’t share such confidence. There comes a time when old paradigms falter and fail, giving way to a completely new paradigm. This is the natural evolution of scientific investigation. We urge anyone interested in the advance of knowledge to recognize that the signs of a new paradigm emerging are unmistakable.

What forces such a radical change is reality itself, which science is obliged to follow. Reality has led us to the point where reductionism, a “bottom up” approach that seeks to build reality up from its smallest constituents, must give way to holism, a “top down” approach that accepts an undeniable fact: Reality is one thing. Up to now, reductionism has been successful in disguising the dualism that is threatening to become a fatal flaw. There is no credible bridge between classical and quantum physics, brain and mind, physiology and psychology. In effect, the march of science through theory and technology has yet to explain how atoms and molecules took the leap that produced human experience, our mental participation in the reality science is trying to explain. Science has relegated personal experience to the sidelines and at times even rejected that consciousness is a valid subject of study. The reason is obvious, because the scientific quest has been for objective findings, not subjective impressions. The split between objective and subjective lies at the bottom of every other duality. But without a top down, holistic framework, there will never be an adequate explanation of reality. The two big questions facing science (What is the universe made of? What is the biological basis of consciousness?) needs to be reframed. What’s at stake is actually “What is existence?” and “How is existence known?”

This reframing will strike the vast majority of scientists as metaphysics, in other words, not science. There is an implicit disdain for philosophy among even elite scientists, who are on public record calling philosophy useless, pointless, and an obstacle to the progress of science. But this viewpoint is the product of an old paradigm on the verge of being superseded. Many significant advances in quantum physics depended on thought experiments, and every science depends on hypotheses and models, which are mental activities.

At some point, a problem can approach the horizon where thought experiments, models, and even mathematics, the ultimate mental foundation of science, must confront the nature of experience. Until we understand the basis of consciousness, from which all experience arises (including the experience of doing science) there is no guarantee that how we perceive the universe matches reality. By taking consciousness for granted, or shunting it aside, the old paradigm assumed that perception
is an adequate match for reality–this despite the obvious fact that science distrusts the report of the five senses. A person sees the sun rise in the East and set in the West. Science investigates to discover if this report has any basis in fact.
What would a top down, holistic foundation for science look like? An answer is just now emerging; the new paradigm is emerging through the activity of many minds. We simply want to make a declaration of intent, pointing science away from its collision with reality. The future of a planet in danger depends upon seeing human experience in a new way, so that preservation replaces endless consumption, saving replaces bottomless spending, and caretaking replaces despoiling. The peril we face is entwined with science and technology, and it is widely expected that science and technology will rescue us.

But this will only happen, we believe, through a deeper, better understanding of consciousness, since after all, nothing is real unless we are conscious of it. The late physicist John Archibald Wheeler was among the first to point out that this is a participatory universe. Humans are embedded in the reality they seek to explain. The time is long past when science can afford to stand outside reality in search of perfect objectivity. As useful as that stance has been, a new stance is urgently needed.

Screen shot 2014-08-29 at 6.46.10 AMI answered politely by email, but didn’t register my choice electronically. Can you guess my answer?

This is not a call for a serious new paradigm—at least, it suggests no fruitful directions of research—but simply an endorsement of Chopra’s metaphysical and woo-laden views. If reductionism won’t help us understand consciousness, what will? The “top down” approach is the name for something that starts with woo, and that simply won’t work.

Note, too, that the only “direction” of research suggested is through “the activity of many minds,” which I presume to be some kind of nebulous “quantum universal consciousness.” And there’s also a threat that if we don’t go in this direction, it’s all over for Earth. That’s rather presumptious, to say the least.

It’s clear from this letter that Chopra is asking a number of scientists to sign on to his call for a New Paradigm. He wants validation of his views—views that many of us have criticized, clearly upsetting him.  He’ll get some endorsers, too, including his mate Rudy Tanzi, and maybe some others who are enamored or woo and suspicious of the reductionist approach to science—the only approach that really ever works for understanding biological systems.  But I seriously doubt he’ll get any of the more skeptical neurosciences.

Signing this letter is like wearing a sign on your forehead that says, “I iz baffled. I can haz new paradime?”




A very early fish

Many readers sent me a note about this paper, but, given my schedule, I simply hadn’t gotten around to reading it. Fortunately, Greg did, and gives us a nice summary of what it means.

by Greg Mayer

In the latest issue of Nature, Simon Conway Morris and Jean-Bernard Caron provide a detailed description of Metaspriggina walcotti, a poorly known and enigmatic fossil from the famous Burgess Shale of British Columbia. Originally described by Alberto Simonetta and Emilio Insom in 1993 from a single specimen that had been collected by Charles Walcott around 1910, in 2008 Conway Morris referred a second Walcott specimen to the species, and redescribed the species based on these two specimens. It was Conway Morris who first referred Metaspriggina to the chordates (the group that includes vertebrates, lancelets and tunicates). He and Caron have now redescribed Metaspriggina again, this time on the basis of 100 new specimens from British Columbia, and also referred specimens from a few other North American localities to the genus. The new material is very well preserved, and allows a much more detailed reconstruction.

Metaspriggina reconstruction by M. Collins.

Metaspriggina reconstruction by M. Collins.

The results of their studies are very interesting. Metaspriggina has the basic chordate features of a notochord, postanal tail, and gills. In addition it has segmented muscles, and the “vertebratey” features of eyes, nasal sacs, and perhaps cranial cartilages and arcualia. (The latter are arrayed along the notochord, and would be ancestral vertebrae.) Most interesting to me is that there are seven sets of paired branchial bars (gill arches), all but the most anterior supporting laterally directed gill filaments. The direction of the latter is significant. In jawed fishes and their descendants, the gills extend laterally from the skeletal arches, while in lampreys and hagfish (the cyclostomes) the gills extend medially from the arches. The lateral gills in Metaspriggina suggest that this is the primitive condition, retained by jawed fishes, and that the medial placement in cyclostomes is derived. The seven pairs of arches also suggest that the many arches of cyclostomes is another derived feature, and that therefore Metaspriggina more closely resembles the jawed fish ancestor. The anteriormost arch, perhaps the homologue of the jaw, differs from the other arches in being more robust.

An, anus; Brv, branchial bars (ventral element); Brd, branchial bars (dorsal element); Brp, branchial bar processes; Es, oesophagus; Ey, eyes; Gu, gut; He?, possible heart; Li, liver; Mo?, possible position of mouth; My, myomere; Na, nasal sacs; No, notochord; Ph, pharyngeal area . (From Fig. 2)

An, anus; Brv, branchial bars (ventral element); Brd, branchial bars (dorsal element); Brp, branchial bar processes; Es, oesophagus; Ey, eyes; Gu, gut; He?, possible heart; Li, liver; Mo?, possible position of mouth; My, myomere; Na, nasal sacs; No, notochord; Ph, pharyngeal area . (From Fig. 2)

In their phylogenetic analysis, Metaspriggina is close to Haikouichthys and Myllokunmingia, two other very early Cambrian vertebrates from the Chengjiang of China. Metaspriggina (ca. 500-515 mya) is slightly younger than the Chinese forms (ca. 520 mya). An interesting side result of their phylogenetic analysis is that Pikaia, formerly the only known Burgess Shale chordate, and usually considered a cephalochordate (i.e. a relative of lancelets, which is what they look like to me) comes out crownward of the cephalochordates, in fact as the sister-group (i.e. closest relative) of the vertebrates.

This paper is a real advance in our knowledge of vertebrate evolution. It is becoming clear that there is an at least modestly diverse Cambrian fauna of jawless fishes, and that these fossils will help us understand the origin of vertebrates and jawed vertebrates in a way that the extant jawless fishes (the cyclostomes) cannot, due to the latter being collateral relatives with their own long separate evolutionary history and corresponding suite of derived characters. These Cambrian fossils seem to provide a better model for the ancestral vertebrates than do the modern lampreys and hagfishes.

I would also add that these early Cambrian vertebrates look very much like what ancestral vertebrates were hypothesized to look like prior to their discovery.

Conway Morris, S. 2008. A redescription of a rare chordate, Metaspriggina walcotti Simonetta and Insom, from the Burgess Shale (Middle Cambrian), British Columbia, Canada. Journal of Paleontology 82:424–430.

Conway Morris, S. And J.-B. Caron. 2014. A primitive fish from the Cambrian of North America. Nature 512:419-422. abstract only

Simonetta, A. M. and E. Insom. 1993. New animals from the Burgess Shale (Middle Cambrian) and their possible significance for the understanding of the Bilateria. Bolletino di Zoologia 60:97–107. pdf

A note for taxonomy geeks: In his 2008 paper, and again in this latest one, Conway Morris refers to the second specimen collected by Walcott as the “lectotype”. This is completely wrong. The specimen upon which a new species is based is the holotype; additional specimens upon which the original description is based are called paratypes. In the old days, before the current rules were codified, authors would frequently base a new species description on several specimens, without specifying a particular specimen to be the name-bearer or holotype.  When no holotype was designated, all the specimens had equal status, and were called syntypes. This is bad in case it should turn out that the original set of specimens actually comprised more than one species (this happened a lot). A later author, in order to insure nomenclatural stability, is permitted to choose from among the syntypes a single specimen to be the primary type of the species. This selected syntype then becomes the lectotype, the other syntypes becoming paralectotypes. A lectotype has the same status as a holotype, in that it fixes application of the name should the type series prove to be composite.

So what’s wrong with the second specimen being a lectotype? Well first off, the second specimen was not part of the original type series, and so cannot possibly be a lectotype. (Simonetta and Insom mentioned this specimen, but thought it taxonomically distinct from Metaspriggina, so it was not part of the basis of the description of Metaspriggina– only the first specimen was.) If a holotype is lost or destroyed, or for some other very good (and rare) nomenclatural reason, it is possible to designate a new primary type, which would be called a neotype. But the holotype of Metaspriggina (the single original specimen) is still in existence and readily observable, so there is absolutely no need to try to designate a new primary type. This is inside baseball and perhaps small beer, but it’s really puzzling how Conway Morris seems not to understand the rules of nomenclature, and how this has not been caught by reviewers or editors.

Pittsburgh: #2

This covers only half of yesterday, for I had an awesome visit to a historic mansion that one of my friends just bought, and then a wonderful multi-course Hungarian dinner, and one of the guests happened to be a Big Macher in Pittsburgh. But more on that tomorrow. Yesterday morning and afternoon I roamed around downtown admiring the architecture of the city, which is underappreciated. Here are some buildings:

The Allegheny County Courthouse (completed 1888) and Allegheny County Jail (completed 1886). The complex now houses offices.

Allegh Cty. court

The Union Trust Building (1915-1916), erected by Henry Clay Frick, originally designed as a shopping arcade (the malls of their day). I love the neo-Gothic roof, which reminds me of the Tribune Tower in Chicago (the world’s only Gothic skyscraper):

Un. Square

I believe this logo is made out of real vegetation, but I may well be wrong. It seems to be for the PNC Bank in Pittsburgh. Perhaps it’s Astroturf after all, for how would they mow it?

Garden mural

A hidden little Art Deco building;

Art Deco

The diversity of architectural styles in Pittsburgh:


“Meet me under the Kaufmann’s clock.” Kaufmann’s Department Store. The Pittsburgh store, built in 1887, became the first of a chain, and is now owned, as is Marshall Field’s in Chicago (also with a famous “meet me” clock), by Macy’s. As Wikipedia notes:

The original clock which was installed in 1887 was a large free standing four faced clock. It immediately became a popular downtown meeting place, with the oft-used phrase “Meet me under Kaufmann’s clock.” With the expansion of the store in 1913, the current clock was installed.The clock is a Pittsburgh icon, and is often featured in visual materials representing and marketing the city. Both the Kaufmann’s flagship building and the clock are designated as Pittsburgh Historical Landmarks. Upon announcing the 2006 retirement of the Kaufmann’s name and the downtown store being rebranded as Macy’s, the store gave out tote bags printed with the Clock’s image and its phrase “Meet me under the Kaufmann’s clock” to honor the store’s 135-year history.


The 64-story U.S. Steel Tower, completed in 1970. It’s a rusty steel building, but designed to be that way. As Wikipedia notes:

The U.S. Steel Tower is architecturally noted for its triangular shape with indented corners. The building also made history by being the first to use liquid-filled fireproofed columns. U.S. Steel deliberately placed the massive steel columns on the exterior of the building to showcase a new product called Cor-ten steel. Cor-ten resists the corrosive effects of rain, snow, ice, fog, and other meteorological conditions by forming a coating of dark brown oxidation over the metal, which inhibits deeper penetration and doesn’t need painting and costly rust-prevention maintenance over the years.

US Steel 1

A closeup of the partly rusted Cor-ten steel.

US steel 2

Time for lunch at last!  And what better place for a light lunch than Primanti Brothers, a Pittsburgh landmark and now a chain. Michael Stern’s description and review at Roadfood notes that Primanti’s weird custom of including french fries and cole slaw within the sandwich began when the restaurant (which has another branch in the busy “Strip” district) was servicing truck drivers. (It’s open 24 hours a day.) The drivers had no time for a sit-down meal, so the cole slaw and fries were simply stuffed into the sandwich along with some Russian dressing. (One also adds a vinegar sauce to spice it up.) That sounds icky, but it was actually quite good. Primanti’s is a Pittsburgh Institution.

I ate early and had a pastrami and cheese sandwich, shown here in normal view and cross section:

Primati 1


Primati 2


Caturday felid: Pizza Hut run by cats, and sad moggies

The Japanese not only love their cats and use them frequently in commercials, but often those commercials are baffling to Westerners. Here are some of them that advertise Pizza Hut in Japan. Having looked at all of them—this is just a sample—I can’t imagine that they’d really sell pizza. But perhaps the mere association of pizza with lazy moggies is sufficient.
From Tokyoite:
Just when you thought cats on the Net had had their day, Japan launches Pizza Cat. This new pizzeria is run by a group of lazy, hairy eyeballing cats named Tencho, Hime, Dora and Detch. You can watch them at ‘work’ – taking orders on the phone, dealing with spreadsheets, cleaning, making deliveries – in a series of short video clips on the store’s official website. Ready to order? Just don’t complain if you find a furball in your cheese.
What baffles me is that these commercials portray Pizza Hut as a place full of lazy, uncaring staff who eat the pizza themselves! How does that sell pizza? Perhaps a Japanese reader can explain.
Here are the kawaii titles of a few commercials given on the Japanese video channel. But there are twelve such videos, and you can see them all here.
“Morning assembly! Fire us up!”
“It’s time for work, y’all”
“Shut up, paws off the phone! They’re all for me!”
“Destination checked! We’ll be there safe driving!”

In case you don’t know of this Twi**er site, it’s pretty damn funny: “Why my cat is sad.” Here are a few examples of tw**ts:

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If you don’t know Bagpuss, it was an awesome British kids’ show (go here for a few videos).

h/t: Zach, Matt, Andrea ~

Readers’ wildlife photographs

Reader Diana MacPherson is busy documenting her birds and chippies, and reader Matt sent some loons:

This first picture is a bit blurry but I thought it was interesting to see the size difference between the Eastern Grey Squirrel ([Sciurus carolinensis] this guy has really red fur) and the Chipmunk ([Eastern chipmunk: Tamias striatus] who you can see peeking up from the grass). The chipmunk is careful around the squirrel but they seem to get along okay at the feeder; I’ve heard squirrels kill chipmunks but I’ve never seen it at my feeder.


A very bendy chipmunk grooms himself.


Grooming the tail (notice the dirty snout – must’ve been foraging earlier).


A female house finch (Haemorhous mexicanus) looks like she is gathering nesting material. It’s too late for that, silly bird.


Reader Matt G gives us a first for this site: loons (at least a first of the avian variety). The chicks ride on mom’s back, and this is the Common Loon, Gavia immer. Matt’s notes:

I teach science in NYC, but spend the summer on Caroga Lake in the Adirondack Mountains.  A pair of loons also spends the summer on Caroga Lake, and I have had the privilege of watching them raise their young.  They have not been reproductively successful for the last couple years (eggs which fail to hatch, predation from snapping turtles and eagles) but they have easily done their share to perpetuate the species.  These were taken with a Canon Rebel XS from the wooden kayak I built several summers ago.

Loon 1

Loon 2



Saturday: Hili dialogue

Posts will be light today as I’m speaking in a few hours and the meeting is all day.  I do my best. Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Cyrus is frustrated. It’s a dog’s life. . .
Cyrus: May I sit on your lap too?
Hili: No, and that’s the difference between a democracy and a hierarchical Church.
In Polish:
Cyrus: Czy ja też mógłbym tak siedzieć na rękach?
Hili: Nie i to jest różnica między demokracją a kościołem hierarchicznym.

Zero-G kittehs

I always thought Russians were the world’s greatest cat lovers—until I saw this video.

Reader Stephen Q. Muth, better known as Butter’s Staff, sends this intriguing video of a cat (and two mice, barely visible) subjected to zero gravity on one of those airplane rides where, as a plane goes over the top of a parabolic arc, the centrifugal force cancels out gravity and one feels weightless—for about 25 seconds. That’s how they train astronauts to see what weightlessness feels like. (See here for more information).

Here an innocent kitty, named Porculpa, has the experience. I don’t think she liked it, despite the mice. Imagine an animal suddenly experiencing weightlessness for the first time. What would a cat do when turned upside down and released?

The explanation for the whole sordid affair is on Vimeo:

Porculpa is the name of a female Russian cat that I took into zero gravity onboard a parabolic aeroplane in 2008. It also means ‘Your Fault’ in Latin.

The plane left from the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center at Star City in Moscow and flew over Azerbaijan. I filmed Porculpa as she adapted to the conditions over 10 parabolas. Each parabola of the IL-76 aeroplane gives roughly 23 seconds of weightlessness. Inside the red container that you see are two mice which were meant to be released at the same time but the Russian Space Agency stipulated that they could not risk the mice getting loose and chewing wires. Both Porculpa and the mice were inside of a specially designed tent (Designer: Nick Joyce/Enigma FX) which was made from ripstack material with crash mats underneath to minimise risk. The height of the protective tent was 6’5”.

After initially considering a hummingbird to see how its flight instinct in weightlessness would be affected, and also discovering that many animals have been tested in isolation but not in relationships to one another, I decided to use a cat and mouse to frame predator prey behaviour in a zero gravity setting.

You cannot rehearse for this environment and research is no real preparation. I chose microgravity flight and animals to create a situation where I had to create a performance in which instinct is the script. In the full footage of ten parabolas, what you do see is the cat begin to adapt to the conditions and display agility and prowess in landing. It uses the container with the mice in to grab onto and turns it around. Its lack of sentience is the deciding factor in the performance.

Did they expect the cat to kill the mice in zero-G conditions? That’s a sick experiment. Fortunately, they weren’t allowed to try it. Note that comments are disabled on the video!

Whoops, I just found a video answer to my questions about cats dropped upside down, and what they do under zero-gravity. Here’s the answer, which doesn’t involve stupid predation experiments:



The cell or the pew? Courts give prostitutes choice of religion or jail

On the face of it, this sounds like a blatant violation of the First Amendment. In Arizona, prostitutes arrested by police in big sting operations are now given the choice of going to jail or participating in a  “rehabilitation program” run by Catholic Charities, which includes 36 hours of classroom instruction in a church. Although I haven’t yet been able to verify how much religion is actually given to these people, the circumstances sound suspicious. According to American United for Separation of Church and State:

The women arrested in Phoenix’s twice-yearly sex-work stings are forcibly taken to Bethany Bible Church and escorted inside in handcuffs. They are then given the option to avoid criminal prosecution by participating in a sectarian program. Critics, including Americans United, have said that Project ROSE is a clear violation of the First Amendment.

Unfortunately, it is one of a growing number of programs nationwide in which church and state have teamed up in an attempt to lower crime rates, as law enforcement officials hope that a dose of old-time religion can convince criminals to change their ways. But the reality, critics say, is that such programs don’t just raise constitutional concerns – there is also little evidence to suggest that they work.

Nevertheless, the trend is expanding, with police chaplains becoming more common and correctional offici­als increasingly open to evangelical Chris­tian programs to keep convicts from committing new crimes after release.

What instruction is given to these sex workers? Again, details are sketchy but sound goddy; here are some from VICE News:

Under the program’s rules, women picked up by police must authorize Catholic Charities to enroll them in its Prostitution Diversion Program (PDP) located in a section of Bethany Bible Church marked by a sign with a Latin cross, the Project ROSE logo and the words “Prosecutor’s Office.”

Monica [an arrested prostitute] described the class as having the religious overtones of an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. In keeping with the program’s Catholicism, no condoms were provided. Neither was child care.

“I wasn’t ashamed about being a sex worker. I kept bringing this up during the diversion program,” Monica told me. “Girls would ask me why I didn’t feel this way. Well, ’cause I don’t. I have the right to my own body.”

Catholic Charities requested that Monica leave early, fearing her influence on others.

Monica’s trial is in March. The prisons she may be sentenced to are brutal. Arizona is the home of the notorious Tent City, an outdoor complex of bunks and razor wire, where prisoners’ shoes melt from the relentless heat.

This is excessive religious entanglement on two grounds. First the state becomes entangled with the Catholic Church. I find it hard to believe that no proselytizing goes on in those church classrooms. Why would Catholic Charities do it without some religious aim, furtive or not? Second, the city is using taxpayer money to funnel the accused into Church-related programs.

To compound the problem, programs like these, according to Americans United, don’t really work, with a high dropout and recidivism rate. Moreover, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the goal of the program, to “rescue” sex workers, doesn’t always jibe with how the sex workers feel about themselves.

Not only is there an apparent problem with organizing busts to send people to a church-backed charity program, but a local group, the Sex Workers Outreach Project of Phoenix, has protested the program because they don’t want to be “rescued” from anything.

Sex workers are out there to make money, not as “victims,” according to the Sex Workers Outreach Project.

Well, be that as it may, I don’t think the law should be in partnership with the church. This isn’t the only case of such unholy matrimony; there’s another one in (of course) Alabama that’s even more blatantly unconstitutional:

A police program in Montgomery, Ala., is also raising some serious constitutional concerns as pastors there have been used to fight crime. TheAtlantic reported in October that city police, facing what had been described as the worst local crime wave in decades, devised a sectarian solution to their problem: “Operation Good Shepherd” (OGS).

OGS ran during the summer of 2013 and involved training local Christian ministers so they were prepared to work crime scenes right alongside police officers. Ministers were sent to active crime scenes and instructed to pray with both victims and perpetrators. Supporters of the operation said this would serve to reinforce morality in a turbulent town.

Notably, no non-Christian clergy were part of this project, and police officials didn’t see a problem with that.

“What we want to do is combine the religious community and the Mont­gomery Police Department, and we want to unite those as one,” David Hicks, a police corporal, told local Christian radio.

Although the ministers who participated in OGS were volunteers, the Atlantic reported that the Montgomery police force is paid to train them and provide them with access to crime scenes, making this a publicly funded project. Montgomery’s official police chaplain does not seem to think that was an issue, either.

It is an issue; an even more obvious violation of the constitution given that actual religious practice (prayer) is involved, and prayer from only one denomination. That, at least, is clearly illegal.

Both Americans United and the ACLU are looking into the Phoenix case. I doubt that their letters of warning or press releases will change anything, and it may have to go to court.  But I’m not sure how cut-and-dried this will look if there is no secular alternative. People can argue that there’s no religious proselytizing, and it’s simply a nonreligious outreach by a religious organization.  But that’s not the way the ACLU and Americans United see it:

“This is an especially serious violation of religious freedom,” Americans United Senior Litigation Counsel Gregory M. Lipper said in a press statement on Project ROSE. “The city of Phoenix is rounding up suspects for the purpose of sending them to a religious program, and then threatening to prosecute them if they decline to participate. The government may never force its citizens to choose between religion and prison.”

I agree, although readers may not.




h/t: Tom

Once again: did Jesus exist?

UPDATE: Several readers have said in the comments that this is a non-issue: why should anyone care whether a historical Jesus existed?  I would have thought the answer was obvious, but I’ll let Sajanas, who has already commented, give it:

But so much of Christian philosophy is based around the argument for authority, that Jesus not existing at all really just crushes it. Then, they’re really no more valid than the philosophies of the Iliad or the Aeneid.

It’s important because one of the major world’s religions is based critically on the claim that a historical Jesus existed, which in principle could be supported with evidence. (It’s also supported by claims for the divinity of said Jesus.) Sometimes I get the feeling that people just say, “Who cares?” because they have a form of xkcd Syndrome.  But millions of Christians do care!


For some reason I’m very curious about whether the Jesus myth is based on a historical person. Even if such a person existed, of course, that gives no credence to his status as the divine son of God/part of God, or to the stories about him in the Bible. After all, many myths are based on historical people who are later deemed to have done miracles, been divine, and so on. “John Frum,” the iconic figure of the Pacific cargo cults, may well have been based on a real American G.I.

Christians, of course, are intensely interested in the historicity of Jesus, for if you can show that such a person existed, it at least gives a boost to their beliefs about his divinity. If, in contrast, there is little or no evidence for a Jesus-person, then the whole myth pretty much collapses, at least if you think Jesus was a real person walking about and doing stuff in Palestine. That’s why Christians are obsessed with whatever evidence exists for a historical Jesus, and why Bart Ehrman’s books substantiating such historicity are best-sellers.

The evidence for a Jesus-person, as we all know (and thanks largely to reader Ben Goren’s arguments on this site), is paper-thin. Because of this, scholars debate the issue hotly, with the “mythicists,” like Richard Carrier (who thinks that Jesus is not based on a historical person), fighting the “historicists,” like Bart Ehrman, who—while denying the divinity of Jesus—thinks that the Jesus myth is based on a real apocalyptic preacher who lived at that time.

Yet the more I look at the evidence—and I’m by no means an expert—the more dubious I become about the evidence for a historical Jesus-person. Yes, one may have existed, but where is the evidence?

As far as I can see, it lies solely in scripture: the New Testament.  There seem to be no credible extra-scriptural sources attesting to the existence of anyone like Jesus. There are no contemporary accounts of his presence and deeds, though there should have been some given the number of people who were writing then in that area of the Middle East, and the remarkable character of Jesus’s deeds. (This includes the earthquakes, renting of the Temple, and arising of zombie saints from their graves during the Crucifixion.) All the accounts come from decades or centuries after Jesus’s supposed death, by which time the myths may have begin forming—and around nobody in particular. In contrast, we have far more historical evidence for the existence of people like, say, Julius Caesar, including contemporary accounts, statues and coins with his image, and contemporary accounts.

As far as I can see, then, the “evidence” for a Jesus-person is twofold: first, that he’s described in the Bible (but so are Noah and Moses), and second, that people think that myths MUST have accreted around some historical person. The first I find unsatisfying; the second unconvincing. Myths may well have formed around no historical person at all. Was the myth of Paul Bunyan really based on some lumberjack who had a pet ox?

Yet it seems churlish—an offense to Christians—to doubt that a historical Jesus existed. It’s as if by being skeptical about that, you are deliberately trying to tick off Christians. And yet, I think, our doubt is warranted. We should not automatically concede to religionists that Jesus must have existed in some corporeal form, divine or otherwise.

This long introduction is to call attention to a new piece at Alternet by Valerie Tarico: “5 reasons to suspect Jesus never existed.” (Tarico is described as “a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington and the founder of Wisdom Commons. She is the author of “Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light” and “Deas and Other Imaginings.” )

Her piece is a short and readable account, which I recommend, and I won’t summarize it except to give the five points that Tarico discusses in detail.

1. No first century secular evidence whatsoever exists to support the actuality of Yeshua ben Yosef. 

2. The earliest New Testament writers seem ignorant of the details of Jesus’ life, which become more crystalized in later texts.

3. Even the New Testament stories don’t claim to be first-hand accounts.

4. The gospels, our only accounts of a historical Jesus, contradict each other.

5. Modern scholars who claim to have uncovered the real historical Jesus depict wildly different persons.

She also includes a quote from Bart Ehrman, who, curiously, thinks a historical Jesus did exist:

“What sorts of things do pagan authors from the time of Jesus have to say about him? Nothing. As odd as it may seem, there is no mention of Jesus at all by any of his pagan contemporaries. There are no birth records, no trial transcripts, no death certificates; there are no expressions of interest, no heated slanders, no passing references – nothing. In fact, if we broaden our field of concern to the years after his death – even if we include the entire first century of the Common Era – there is not so much as a solitary reference to Jesus in any non-Christian, non-Jewish source of any kind. I should stress that we do have a large number of documents from the time – the writings of poets, philosophers, historians, scientists, and government officials, for example, not to mention the large collection of surviving inscriptions on stone and private letters and legal documents on papyrus. In none of this vast array of surviving writings is Jesus’ name ever so much as mentioned.” (pp. 56-57 of  Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium)

Yet if that’s a real quote from Ehrman, and not taken out of context, why does he claim with such assurance that a historical Jesus existed?

h/t: Barry~


I’m in Pittsburgh for the the Pennsylvania State Atheist/Humanist Conference, which begins this evening.  I arrived a bit early to acquaint myself with a city in which I spent much of my youth (my uncles and cousins lived here). As many know, this town, once a gritty, dirty, steel-manufacturing center, has undergone a huge renovation, and is now clean, livable, and attractive. When my father went to school here—at Pitt—in the early 1940s, he told me it was so smoggy that he had to change his shirt three times a day. Now the steel mills are mostly closed, and they’re fixing up the historic downtown, which has some lovely buildings.

Here’s one: the Art Deco Gulf Tower, built between 1930-1932. The Weather Underground bombed the 29th floor in 1974. The entrance is lovely:

Gulf building

Just a random shot of the skyline:


A Henri Cartier-Bresson wannabee photo: busy Pittsburghers:


Based on a reader’s suggestion, I had dinner at the Sharp Edge Bistro close to my hotel. It specializes in craft beers, particularly Belgian ones.


They had a lot of Belgian beers on draft, which was surprising. The prices were high, but I went during happy hour, so the prices were halved.

Draft Belgians

Here are the bottled Belgian beers. I see that one of my favorites, St. Bernardus (12% alcohol), is $75 for a 1.5-liter bottle. But you can buy smaller bottles in the U.S. at a much more reasonable price.

Bottled Belgians

My dinner: a classic meal: moules (mussels, these cooked with chopped tomatoes, garlic, and beer), frites, and a Belgian beer. The server recommended the draft “Over the Edge,” at 9.5% alcohol, and brewed in Belgium for the bistro. It was excellent, with a strong hoppy flavor that didn’t overwhelm the classic fruitiness of a Belgian beer. The fries were served with a mayo/curry sauce.


Fortunately, there was a Ben & Jerry’s next door, and, on a whim, I stopped in for dessert: a waffle cone containing a scoop of salted caramel ice cream as well as an over-the-top triple chocolate pudding flavor (hidden in this view):


Tonight a friend and I have reservations at Josza Corner, an unprepossessing Hungarian restaurant that’s supposed to have terrific food. Report tomorrow. Roadfood, one of my favorite food sites, says this about it:

“Always call ahead!” is especially true of Jozsa Corner, because Alex Jozsa Bodnar provides dinner by appointment only. But with an appointment for space at the two long dining tables that fill the dining room, you can get a multi-course feast of whatever Hungarian country fare Alex decides to provide that day.

On one recent visit, the dinner included these dishes:
– sliced vegetables, cheese, stuffed grape leaves, and pork cracklings
– langos, a fried bread topped with herbs and cheese
– vinegary coleslaw topped with dill
– vegetable peasant soup with noodles
– haluska (buttered cabbage and noodles)
– spicy Hungarian kolbasz sausage
– braided peasant bread topped with poppy seeds, fresh from the oven
– Transylvanian goulash, made with pork and sauerkraut
– vinegary cucumber salad
– chicken paprikash with noodles and homemade dumplings (called nokedli)
– and dessert of langosh and prunes

Now if that doesn’t get your juices flowing, you have no stomach.





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