Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Hawking Says Philosophy Is Dead, Science Can Answer All the Major Questions

Thanks to Glenn Peoples and Adam Santibanez for directing me to this info! What I've written below is based on reviews of Hawking's new book, which I haven't yet read, so please let me know if I've misunderstood him (or rather, if the reviewers and I have misunderstood him):

Stephen Hawking (and/or his co-author) writes on page 5 of his new book, in which he claims to have disproved God, that: "Traditionally these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics. Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge."

I wonder when philosophy died. Maybe it died right after atheist scientists like Hawking and Dawkins determined that philosophical naturalism should be the presuppositional underpinning of all science. Or maybe it was merely dying, and actually bought the farm pages later after Hawking had quoted his share of philosophers and gave his support to an epistemological view called model-dependent realism. In any case, it's dead now so let's stop asking questions about meaning, truth, beauty, and knowledge and just let Hawking tell us what the truth is, or rather, what the truth is "for him" since model-dependent realism suggests that:
"there is no one model, but in fact a lot of different ways in which one could predict the same situation; and if two different theories are able to forecast same events, none of them could be called wrong. Anyone who feels more convenient with a specific theory is free to use it and no one has the right to question their choice" (

In any case, God is absolutely NOT necessary to explain the universe... at least for him.

‎"The professional philosopher can only roll his eyes at the effrontery and condescension of such a statement. Two scientists who have, to all appearances, little acquaintance with philosophy are prepared to pronounce an entire discipline dead and to insult their own faculty colleagues in philosophy at Cal Tech and Cambridge University, many of whom, like Michael Redhead and D. H. Mellor, are eminent philosophers of science, for supposedly failing to keep up. I couldn’t help but wonder what evidence our intrepid authors have of Mr. Redhead’s laggard scholarship? What recent works in philosophy have they read that form the basis for their verdict? Alas, they do not say.

"The professional philosopher will regard their verdict as not merely condescending but also as outrageously na├»ve. The man who claims to have no need of philosophy is the one most apt to be fooled by it. One might therefore anticipate that Mlodinow and Hawking’s subsequent exposition of their favored theories will be underpinned by a host of unexamined philosophical presuppositions. That expectation is, in fact, borne out. Like their claims about the origin of the universe from “nothing” or about the Many Worlds Hypothesis to explain fine tuning, their claims about laws of nature, the possibility of miracles, scientific determinism, and the illusion of free will are asserted with only the thinnest of justification and little understanding of the philosophical issues involved."

Questions for the skeptic:
Can science really answer ALL the big questions? Are there some questions it can't answer-- for instance, why we should trust science to begin with?

Is it true that we should only trust that which science can show to be true? Can science show this idea to be true?

Despite Hawking's brilliance, doesn't this declaration suggest that he's speaking out of turn on issues he has no real knowledge about?

If truth is not absolute, then isn't it a little ridiculous for Hawking to say that he has "disproved" God? Wouldn't it be more accurate to say that he personally doesn't see the evidence to be convincing? Since this is only true for him, why should we care?

If truth is not absolute, is it absolutely true that truth is not absolute?

Is Isaiah Teaching About a Jesus-like Figure?

Note: The reason I'm examining Isaiah 53 here is because it is an oft quoted passage in the Old Testament (hundreds of years before Jesus) that Christians claim is a prophecy about Jesus. The Dead Sea Scrolls have demonstrated that the Isaiah 53 we have today is the same Isaiah 53 that we had BEFORE Jesus was born, so Christian tampering cannot be alleged here, as it once was by secular scholars before we discovered the Dead Sea Scrolls. What follows is pre-Christian and was accepted by pre-Jesus Jews as the Word of God. I am using a popular Jewish translation to show that Christians are not engaging in faulty translations to try to force Jesus into the Old Testament. It's also important to note that Jews in the day of Jesus were not expecting a suffering Messiah, though there are a handful of exceptions in Jewish tradition that can be pointed out (nearly all AFTER Jesus, however). In other words, it would be quite bizarre for Jewish followers of Jesus to attempt to apply this passage to the Messiah, and it is also bizarre how closely it matches the life of Jesus and what He taught about what would happen to Him. With that, I'll move onto the JPS translation of Isaiah 53, along with my notes.

Before I show you how the JPS (Jewish Publication Society) renders this passage, I want to note that this IS in fact a translation done by orthodox, conservative, and reform Jews (in other words, NOT Messianic or Christian Jews). This is the newer updated JPS translation which was finished in the 1980s. Other than changes in capitalization, punctuation (I've removed some of the quotation marks), line spacing, and adding some of the translators' footnotes INTO the text via parentheticals, I have not made any changes to their translation.

After their translation I will add a few notes of my own. I will admit that I am sharing thoughts I have gathered from others or had myself, but I am not surveying any commentaries for my notes. I may be missing or misunderstanding something because of my lack of knowledge. Please let me know if I'm not on-point on anything.

I am also going to begin in Isaiah 52:13 because that's where most scholars agree this passage starts.

Isaiah 52

13 Indeed, My servant shall prosper, be exalted and raised to great heights.
14 Just as the many were appalled at him (translators' note: Hebrew reads "you")-- so marred was his appearance, unlike that of man, His form, beyond human semblance--
15 Just so he shall startle (translators' note: Meaning of Hebrew uncertain) many nations. Kings shall be silenced because of him, for they shall see what has not been told them, shall behold what they never have heard.

Isaiah 53

1 Who can believe what we have heard? Upon whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?
2 For he has grown, by His favor, like a tree crown, like a tree trunk out of arid ground. He had no form or beauty that we should look at him: No charm, that we should find him pleasing.
3 He was despised, shunned by men, a man of suffering, familiar with disease. As one who hid his face from us (translators' note: i.e., as a leper) , He was despised, we held him of no account.
4 Yet it was our sickness he was bearing, our suffering that he endured. We accounted him plagued, smitten and afflicted by God;
5 But he was wounded because of our sins, crushed because of our iniquities. He bore the chastisement that made us whole, and by his bruises we were healed.
6 We all went astray like sheep, each going his own way; and the LORD visited upon him the guilt of all of us.

7 He was maltreated, yet he was submissive, He did not open his mouth; like a sheep being led to slaughter, like a ewe, dumb before those who shear her, he did not open his mouth.
8 By oppressive judgment he was taken away, who could describe his abode? For he was cut off from the land of the living through the sin of my people, who deserved the punishment.
9 And his grave was set among the wicked, and with the rich, in his death though he had done no injustice and had spoken no falsehood.
10 But the LORD chose to crush him by disease, that, if he made himself an offering for guilt, He might see offspring (translators' note: emendation yields "His arm," i.e. His vindication) and have long life, and that through him the LORD's purpose might prosper.
11 Out of his anguish he shall see it. He shall enjoy it to the full through his devotion.

"My righteous servant makes the many righteous, it is their punishment that he bears;
12 Assuredly, I will give him the many as his proportion, he shall receive the multitude of his spoil. For he exposed himself to death and was numbered among the sinners, whereas he bore the guilt of many and made intercession for the sinners."

My thoughts:

We first read of the servant in this passage as someone who WILL BE raised up to great heights. But the following verses suggest that something must happen first, something that brings him low.

The translators' note in verse 15 which points out that the Hebrew says "you" seems preferable to me. Just as the Jewish people had suffered so much, so also would this servant who represents them.

The word "startle" in 52:15 is given as an alternative in many Christian translations, but here is given as the main translation with the note that the Hebrew is uncertain. And yet, in EVERY other place where the word "nazah" is used in the Hebrew Bible, it doesn't mean "startle," but "sprinkle," and is usually used of sprinkling sacrificial blood (see for instance Lev 16:15)! Isaiah uses the word in 63:3 as well, where it is also clearly a reference to sprinkling blood. It seems that startle is suggested because afterwards it is said that kings would shut their mouths at him. However, the overall thrust of the passage is about someone who dies as a guilt offering for the people. While the 53rd chapter focuses on this death as being for the atonement of the Jewish people, 52:15 says that this blood effects atonement for the nations as well.

53:1-3 points out that this servant of the LORD would suffer greatly and not be held in high regard by the people, but looked over. However, verse 4 tells us something quite unexpected. It was for the sins of those who rejected him that he was suffering. Though they assumed that he must be undergoing a just punishment from God, Isaiah tells us that this servant was in fact paying the price that those who taunted him should have been paying for their sins! Verses 5 and 6 re-emphasize these points. His suffering is to make us (in particular the Jewish people, but gentiles who become part of the community of God are also in view) whole, and the guilt we acquired for turning away from God was placed on him. HE took the punishment.

Verses 7-9 tell us a few things. First of all, they reiterate that he suffered for sins he did not commit. Those men who sentenced him did so unjustly. Secondly, he viewed it as proper to accept this undeserved punishment, so he did not defend himself. Third, he suffered the fate that was reserved for criminals, and his place of burial was reserved for a rich man (see Matthew 27:57-60 in the New Testament).

Verse 10 puts this event into view from God's perspective. It was part of God's purpose to crush His servant, so that he would be an asham, a guilt offering, for the sin of God's people (that's what is meant by calling the servant the "Arm of the LORD"-- the one who accomplishes God's purposes. By dying for sins, the servant would see offspring. While the JPS emphasizes that this means he would be vindicated, I think it's important to suggest that the servant would truly see offspring through dying, but that they would not be physical offspring. After all, these are offspring that come about through his DEATH. It is after his death that he is exalted, as Isaiah 52:13-15 suggests (note the tenses). It is through his atoning death, and his being raised up which comes after it, that he is able to see SPIRITUAL offspring-- those who become children of God because they are atoned for by his servant's blood.

Verse 12 uses an important word-- intercession. Though the people have turned away from God and deserve death, God punishes His servant in their place. The servant of the LORD has interceded for them. He is able to do what they cannot-- serve as a sinless mediator between God and mankind.

For information on Jewish interpretations of Isaiah 53, please check out my post on this subject.

Questions for the skeptic:
Why does this passage so closely match the details of Jesus' life? Is it coincidence? Did the apostles lie? If so, why? What evidence do we have that would make us doubt their accounts, other than a bias against the supernatural?

Does this passage reflect a Jesus which is far more Jewish than some would suggest? It is often alleged that Jesus' story was taken from pagan mythologies (a claim which has no real scholarly support, but which persists nonetheless), but this dying and rising figure is in a Jewish source-- the Old Testament. Does this suggest that there is much more cohesion between the Old Testament and New Testament, which collects documents spanning over a thousand years, than skeptics would like to admit?

Why do you think that the sacrifice of the innocent for the sin of the guilty is an almost universal theme among mankind?

Monday, September 13, 2010

"At the Instigation of Christ"

The Roman historian Suetonius, reflecting on the period when Claudius was Emperor (41-54 A.D.), shares an interesting tidbit about an event that happened during his reign:
"Since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, [Claudius] expelled them from Rome."

Interestingly, Acts 18:2 in the New Testament also gives an account of this event:
"There [Paul] met a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had ordered all the Jews to leave Rome."

It seems clear that the Jews were in fact expelled from Rome by Claudius on account of one Suetonius called Chrestus, but who is Chrestus? Many have pointed out that Chrestus is an alternative spelling of Christus, or Christ. So it seems that Jews were causing disturbances in Rome on account of a Christ-figure (Christ being the Greek version of the Hebrew Mashiach or Messiah). Many have suggested that this refers to Jewish mobs coming against those who preached Christ Jesus. This is not an unreasonable interpretation of Suetonius' words. After all, there clearly was outrage from Jewish mobs over Paul's preaching of Jesus which are recorded all throughout the book of Acts. In the chapter previous to the one quoted above, there is an account of a Jewish mob organizing in Thessalonica in response to Paul's preaching of Christ, and even the chapter the quotation is taken from gives an account of a Jewish mob bringing Paul before the authorities because they are offended at his preaching. Based on just these bare facts, it seems very reasonable to assume that a number of Roman Jews as well were being brought to violence over the preaching of Jesus, and that Claudius might have expelled them from Rome because of it.

One difficulty with this is that Acts 18 never explains why the Jews, along with Christian Jews like Priscilla and Aquila, were expelled. Based on the purpose of Luke in writing the book of Acts (to give an account of the earliest preaching of the Gospel after Jesus' ascension, and of the difficulties the disciples encountered), it would seem that he would be interested in sharing this information. This provides one piece of evidence that Claudius was not concerned about violence over the preaching of the Gospel, but it certainly doesn't destroy the case for the position that he was. Luke could have had any number of reasons for not feeling that it was necessary to give details here.

There is other evidence that Claudius was concerned with the "Christian problem" and particularly how it created difficulties among the non-Christian Jewish population of the empire. The Nazareth Inscription is among this evidence. While there are numerous opinions on how the inscription should be dated and understood, Clyde E. Billington PhD lays out a very convincing case that it was written by Claudius in response to the Jewish claim that the Christians had removed Jesus' body from the tomb, which is why they believed it couldn't be found there. Billington's translation of the Inscription reads, in part:
"if anyone legally charges that another person has destroyed, or has in any manner extracted those who have been buried, or has moved with wicked intent those who have been buried to other places, committing a crime against them, or has moved sepulcher-sealing stones, against such a person I order that a judicial tribunal be created..."

Billington also speculates as to what the impact this inscription might have had on Christians. He suggested that Herod Agrippa I, a lifetime friend of Claudius who provided priceless information to him about how to govern the Jews in a way which would be least likely to incite violence and respect their traditions, promptly responded to this edict with what we read in Acts 12:1-3:
"It was about this time that King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church, intending to persecute them. He had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword. When he saw that this pleased the Jews, he proceeded to seize Peter also. This happened during the Feast of Unleavened Bread."

If Billington's understanding of this inscription, posted in Nazareth where Jesus lived (and after which His disciples were called Nazarenes), is correct, then it becomes clear that Claudius was concerned with the issue of Rabbinic Jewish and Christian Jewish relations, and that he very reasonably could have expelled all of the Jews (whether Rabbinic or Christian) from Rome because of the conflicts that were erupting in response to the Gospel being preached there.

Questions for the skeptic:
Since so few scholars, reflecting on the historical evidence, doubt the existence of a historical Jesus who lived, taught, was crucified, and whose followers believed was raised up, why do so many "internet atheists" doubt His existence?

Many skeptics might grant that Jesus' followers SAID they saw the risen Jesus, but that they were really lying, as many of the non-Christian Jews of that day said they did. But since almost all of Jesus' 12 disciples were martyred for their belief in the risen Jesus, and they never recanted, is this theory really tenable? What other options are left to the skeptic to explain the disciples' behavior?