Beyond first-order skepticism

In our culture, there’s a great shortcut to the high ground: the bold skeptic who doesn’t believe any of your ignorant mainstream rot. You see it everywhere. The bold skeptic is deeply and widely appealing, instantly recognizable, and so easy to fake. It’s almost as easy to fake as the other shortcut: the underdog. If underdog billionaires can complain about “the elites,” and underdog top (as in literally mainstream media) pundits can rage at mainstream media, then calling a good thing bad is nothing.

So: to instantly amaze your friends with your intellectual depth, take something everyone believes and reject it. That’s the first-order skeptic.

First-order skepticism in itself is common, and fine. It isn’t very deep to be a contrarian. But it’s something. The problem with the first order skeptic is this: a lot of what us sheeple believe, we believe because it’s true. Floor down, sky up, grass green, sun big. It can be tricky maintaining a skeptic identity without being easily cornerable into untenable positions. This is the big problem at the ground floor of skepticism. But you can solve it with work, by going deeper.

A second-order sceptic doubts both the common wisdom and the first-order skeptics. What a first-order skeptic has on the normies, a second-order skeptic has on on the first-order skeptics. “The earth isn’t flat or round: it’s a geoid!” Then there’s your third-order skeptic, who doubts the zero-, first-, and second-order skeptics, and so on. “Sure the earth is a geoid, but that’s not really a definition of a kind of shape, it’s really more our name for whatever shape earth is“. A hippie first-order skeptic will reject microwaves and dish washers for being too gadgety and commodity, while a second-order hippie will embrace them for being energy and resource efficient. Michael Moore rejects recycling because putting sustainability work on consumers is a drop in the bucket up against the magnitude of corporate waste. That’s a second-order skeptic. 

If a first-order vegetarian rejects meat on ethical or squeamish grounds, a second-order vegetarian might use ecological grounds, which reject animal agriculture, but will eat hunted goat in the tropics, or hunted moose in the arctic, ecosystems that can support those game at those levels of prevalence. A third-order vegetarian thinks that’s fine, but a little too naive in its embrace of the bold individualist. At the third order, your vote is naturally for the the most ecologically, ethically sound protein source of all. You argue that we should farm and eat bugs. 

As you go further and further down, you occupying increasingly unlikely, creative positions, and become more and more of a character, with more credibility with each level. At each level, you have to be more informed. Each level is harder to fake. Every take feels like IcyHot: spicy freshness and stone cold logic in the same package. Many of my biggest moments of admiration or respect boil down to a moment of seeing someone lodged in at level three or four casually blowing my mind. One of my most influential professors was so radically higher-order in her feminism that she exclusively wore dresses, because she saw the trend to sell women on shirts and pants as nothing but a fashion industry ploy to get women to spend twice as much on garments. And deeper isn’t always better, I also admire consistency at medium depth. Jacobin Magazine, and The Baffler before it, are just solid reliable consistent second-order skepticism. I always think of Jacobin taking down Foucault for admiration of capitalism.

I’ve seen that sometimes if you fly too high you wrap back around to incredibly norm-y positions. I’ve found many of the friends who are best at it become absolute curmudgeons. I’ve seen the second- and third- orders get faked as well. But overall, it’s a sign of quality. As an idea it’s like “Galaxy Brain” but the result of work and investment. It’s a sign of real thought. It’s something I look for in the people I follow. I don’t know if originality exists, it’s possible it doesn’t. It’s possible that no deep originality is more than a sum up from zero stopping at third, or fourth, or fifth order skepticisms, increasingly faithful to original with every extra pass. It’s also the perfect cudgel for all those bold skeptics.

A recent history of astrology

I made a site this summer——that’s a sort of glorified blog post about what happens when you go ahead and give astrology a basis in science. I wrapped it up with an explainer that was hidden in the back of the site, so I’m publishing the full thing here.

The history

Before the 17th century, Westerners used similarity as the basis for order in the world. Walnuts look like brains? They must be good for headaches. The planets seem to wander among the stars, the way that humans walk among the plants and trees? The course of those planets must tell us something about the course of human lives. This old way of thinking about the stars persists today, in the form of astrology, an ancestor of the science of astronomy that understands analogy as a basis of cosmic order.

Planets and the earthbound objects that exert the same gravitational pull at about two meters away. If you don’t believe that a shared spiritual essence binds the objects of the cosmos to a common fate, keep in mind that the everyday object most gravitationally similar to Uranus is the toilet.
It was our close relationship to the heavenly bodies that slowly changed the role of similarity in explanation, across the sciences, from something in the world to something in our heads. Thanks to the stargazers, similarity has been almost entirely replaced by cause and mechanism as the ordering principle of nature. This change was attended by another that brought the heavenly bodies down to earth, literally.

Physics was barely a science before Isaac Newton’s insights into gravity. But Newton’s breakthrough was due less to apples than to cannons. He asked what would happen if a cannonball were shot with such strength that, before it could fall some distance towards the ground, the Earth’s curvature had moved the ground away by the same amount. The cannonball would be … a moon! Being in orbit is nothing more than constantly falling! Through this and other thought experiments, he showed that we don’t need separate sciences for events on Earth and events beyond it (except, well, he was also an occultist). Newton unified nature.

Gravity—poorly understood to this day—causes masses to be attracted to each other. It is very weak. If you stand in front of a large office building, its pull on you is a fraction of the strength of a butterfly’s wing beats. The Himalyas, home of the tallest peak on Earth, have enough extra gravity to throw off instruments, but not enough to make you heavier. Still enough to matter: Everests’s extra gravity vexed the mountain’s first explorers, who couldn’t get a fix on its height because they could couldn’t get their plumb lines plumb.

So is the gravity of faraway bodies strong enough to change your fate? And if so, how? Following the three-century impact of science on thought, modern astrologists have occasionally ventured to build out from the mere fact of astrology into explanations of how it must actually work; to bring astrology into nature right there with physics. Most explanations have focused on gravity, that mysterious force, reasoning that the patterns of gravitational effects of such massive bodies must be large, unique, or peculiar enough to leave some imprint at the moment of birth.

But by making astrology physical, we leave open the possibility that it is subject to physics. If we accept astrology and know the laws of gravity, we should be able reproduce the gravitational fingerprint of the planets and bring our cosmic destiny into our own hands.


Foucault’s “The order of things”
Bronowski’s “The common sense of science”
Pratt, 1855 “I. On the attraction of the Himalaya Mountains, and of the elevated regions beyond them, upon the plumb-line in India”


This entry was posted on Wednesday, October 24th, 2018 and is filed under believers, science.

Change your baby’s astrological sign with physics!

My summer project this year was a little non-academic web app project.

The premise of the site is that the mechanism of astrology is gravitational influence, and that since small nearby things have influence comparable to large things far away, it should be possible to tune your child’s astrological sign by giving birth around specifically arranged person-made objects. As a pop science site, you’ll see that it is a pretty soft sell: not telling anyone that astrology is wrong, instead trying to channel the interest in astrology into relevant subjects of physics.

I haven’t even released the site yet, but as a summer project it’s already a big success. I developed my frontend skills a bunch, and learned how to use astrological ephemeris databases. I also learned that astrology has a big open source community. I learned that there is a .baby and .amazon top-level domain for web addresses. I also learned a bit more about how to teach web programming students, hopefully showing the bones of the Internet a bit and making code a bit less intimidating.

A strong identity is no defense against hypocrisy (a good offense is a bad defense)

Take a look at these five people, and see what they have in common

  • The young contrarian so repulsed by his lefty friends’ sheeple-ness that he becomes a reactionary, only to become an ideologue himself.
  • The brave young hipster who has called himself a feminist for so long that everyone is blind to his violence against women, including himself
  • The pastor whose consuming identity as a servant of God makes him blind to his own embezzlement or abuse
  • The downtrodden who become toxic after rejecting that victims of oppression are capable of acts oppression.
  • I see it all the time in science too. For example, T.C. Chamberlin, a 19th and 20th century “dean” of American geology, within decades of extending his fame with a classic warning against dogmatism in science, had become such a toxic antagonist of the theory of plate tectonics that he probably singlehandedly set its acceptance back by decades.

You have hypocrites in all of these examples, but name calling is beside the point here. Each of these characters started out sympathetic, and changed in a very human way into something unhealthy. Considering what they went through—the actual etiology of hypocrisy—empowers us to move past imperiously impugning the fallen, and actually protect ourselves from the same ugly fate.

Each of those people probably began with good strong intellectual defenses against some threat. But eventually, they all excused themselves from the need to constantly re-evaluate themselves. They stopped questioning their standing, and lost it. It’s like you have a big strong wall around you, but you slowly let your identity balloon to include it. You start to be impressed by how forbidding the identity is, and how much easier it is to maintain than the wall’s bulky brick and mortar. Eventually, you let the balloon take over as the wall crumbles. But a big ballon is a superficial and misleading defense. Or, to trade some faithfulness for concision, you have a big strong gate keeping out the riff-raff. You want to make it even more formidable, so you light it on fire, and that works for a while, until you’re down to nothing.

Using identity as a defense against hypocrisy is a really subtle and insidious trap, but naming it and describing it makes it easier to guard against, which is why I like to think about these things.

Still, I’m no exception. I’ve caught myself in it before, several times, and that’s why a basic part of my intellectual hygiene is never letting myself think that my current intellectual hygiene is enough. Hopefully that’s enough to protect me, except, well, if I think it’s enough then by definition it isn’t.

Self-doubt is an awful foundation for knowledge, but, when you’re all too human, it might be less bad than anything else.

Is it immoral to not read the newspaper?

Is it immoral to not educate myself about political issues that affect thousands and millions of lives. If I’m a voter? If I’m a resident of a (the) superpower? If I, as a scientist, try not to have opinions?

I ask these questions from the far extreme. I get my current events by reverse engineering jokes on the Daily Show. And I rationalize my ignorance with a language game. In science, especially social science, total ignorance is the default state. Exceptions to that are mainly brief, trivial lapses into insight.

A few years ago things were going badly, and I wanted to stop making unqualified judgements about the state of the world. I asked my friends to kick me in the nuts every time they caught me speaking as if I knew what I was talking about. It didn’t really work — no one wanted to kick me — but it was a fun exercise, and it represented something I still want to cultivate. Maybe I’ve taken thing too far, but I believe that the ultimate purpose of science is nescience. I think that the best way to survive feeling like an idiot all the time is to love the feeling of ignorance. That’s awe.

So what happens when someone with those habits ends up in a political conversation? Ignorance is considered bad in politics, as if we have a choice but to be 90% ignorant about the causes and effects of social phenomena. I think that that ignorance of ignorance continues on down to the American social fabric. “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” Or even better: “Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” So if you ask me to say something definitive about some current event, I’m either going to tell you that I don’t really know, or I’m going to throw something together from the thin fabric of my prior beliefs. And I’m no exception.

When I look around, I get the feeling that the people who identify as politically informed are those with the strongest opinions. As I write that, I realize I must be a strange creature, because when it comes to society, I believe its delusional to have strong opinions.

My attitude as a social science, the only non-delusional attitude that a social scientist can adopt, is that every informative declarative statement about society is wrong and riddled with exceptions. Race? What about light-skinned black people, dark-skinned white people, Arabs (“white”), Latinos, multiracial Americans, multiracial immigrants, 1/64 black people now, 1/64 black people 100 yeas ago? The race of each of these people depends on what and when they were born, what they do and who they spend their time with. And its never so simple that this person or policy caused that social catastrophe.

Now imagine a politician who adopts the same view — treating a social system less like a machine with buttons and levers and more like the ecology of a national park. The job of a politician is to do stuff, is to intervene boldy and confidently in an inherently unpredictable, unknowable system that determines the fate of millions. Kids smashing blocks together. I don’t think that’s immoral. I think its necessary. I’ve done it myself on a smaller scale. But I did it conscious that it was all based on flimsy premises. Believing in change doesn’t make it any less audacious.

And that’s the riddle. Because not doing anything, this responsible, careful, outsider’s cultivated ignorance and equinimity is also based on flimsy premises. I’m not an outsider. My daily habits, however normal, perpetuate values that I don’t support. My opinions, and my lacks of opinions, influence how other people think and what they say and where society goes.

So what do I do? I’m not going to read three books about every newspaper article. I’m not going to start a foundation, or become a citizen journalist. A part of me wishes I wanted those things. In the long term maybe I’ll try to start caring more, or maybe try to get angrier about social problems. And in the mean time, I’ll just have to be honest that I’m unjustifiably hiding behind my justified ignorance.

Militant atheism is oppressive atheism. c.f. Portugal

Wikipedia’s list of religious slurs contains the Portugese slur “Ateu-graças-a-Deus.” It translates to “‘Thank God’ atheist,” and its what you call someone who is only atheist in public, but who secretly believes. Fortunately American culture doesn’t yet have a need for that kind of atheist. Its symptomatic of an atmosphere in which believers are coerced into acting like non-believers. I think its a failure, and I also think that its the kind of thing that must fall out of the religious bigotry of Dawkins and the other most prominent Western atheists. But, thanks to the mistakes of communism and fascism, and the lessons learned from them, I don’t believe atheism will swing so far over that it becomes oppressive. I hope not.

Never too smart to be very wrong

A lot of my life choices and habits of thought have been devoted to never letting myself get permanently attached something that’s wrong. That would be my hell, and I think that there’s always a risk of it. Somehow there is no being humble enough. As an exercise for myself, and as an illustration of the risks, I went on a hunt for examples of famous scientists who got stuck and went to their graves as the last major holdout for a dead discredited theory. I figure I might learn some of the signs to watch for in myself.

It has been one of those things where you don’t fully understand what you’re looking for until you find it. The understanding happens in the process of sifting through lots of examples that you thought would fit and finding just one. Slightly different from what I described above –– the existential to my universal –– is the otherwise-incredible scientist who proposes a batshit theory that never catches on. There are lots of those, and they’re listed separately. I value them less because, well, I’m not sure. It probably has something to do with the subtle differences between superceded theories, pseudoscientific theories, fringe theories, and unscientific theories. [Ed. It took me a day, but I’m interested in the difference between attachment to a superceded theory and to a fringe theory. I’m focusing on the former, and I think its more dramatic.]

I found other side-categories over the course of refining my main list. There are enough Nobel Laureates going off the deep end that they get their own section. There are plenty examples of experts adopting wacky views outside their area of expertise. I also eliminated lots of potentially great examples because the scientist’s wacky commitment was one that was reasonable to believe at the time –– take physicist Einstein’s discomfort with quantum mechanics, anatomist Paul Broca’s affection for phrenology, and evolutionist George Gaylord Simpson’s pretty violent and unreasonable dismissal of plate tectonics.

There are also people who flirted with a crazy idea but didn’t let it get the better of them and those who, while they believed crazy stuff, didn’t accomplish enough for me to say “this person is way way smarter than everyone I know.”

I did my best, and I learned a lot, but I couldn’t research all of these totally thoroughly. If I had any doubt about someone’s being in the “way too smart to be a paleo holdout” category then I put them in one of the less impressive lists.

The vast majority of these examples are from other people’s brains. The branches of the taxonomy were also influenced as much by people’s comments as my own here-and-there experiences of dissatisfaction. Biggest thanks to Micah Josephy, Finn Brunton, Michael Bishop, all the people here, and at less wrong.

“I’m smart, but I will never stop believing in this wrong theory”

The most interesting cases are where a contested theory became consensus theory for all but a few otherwise thoughtful holdouts, like:

  • Astrophysicist Fred Hoyle who never accepted the Big Bang.
  • Biologist Alfred Russel Wallace who campaigned against vaccines
  • Physicist Heaviside against relativity.
  • Physicist Phillipp Lenard against relativity, thanks to Nazi Deutsche Physik (Nobel).
  • Physicist Johannes Stark against relativity, also from Deutsche Physik (Nobel).
  • Physicist Nikola Tesla against relativity.
  • Tesla against other chunks of modern physics.
  • Chemist Joseph Priestley‘s sustained defense of phlogiston.
  • Statistician and biologist Sir Ronald Fischer‘s rejection of the theory that smoking causes lung cancer.
  • Physicist and early psychologist Ernst Mach‘s rejection of atoms! (and relativity). He was arguing for a very subjective philosophy of science well after Einstein’s pre-relativity work to confirm the kinetic theory of gases.
  • Biologist Peter Duesberg‘s rejection that HIV causes AIDs, and his advocacy of alternative causes like drug use.
  • Biologist Trofim Lysenko‘s rejection of Mendelian inheritance, thanks to Michurinism, the Soviet Lamarckism.
  • Psychologist B. F. Skinner‘s rejection of the idea that humans have mental states (from his books, like About Behaviorism; This is cleverly falsified by Shephard and Metzler’s wonderful 1971 experiment).

Honorable mention

These people, despite their notability, didn’t make the list, either because they saw the light, because they weren’t a scientist, or because they are part of an ongoing controversy and might still redeem theirselves. Erdös and Simpson make it because of how badly behaved they were for the short time before they realized they were wrong.

  • Mathematician Erdős and the simple elegant Monty Hall problem. He was adamant about the solution until he was proven wrong. In fact, an embarrassing chunk of the professional mathematics community dismissed the female who posed it until they were all proven wrong. Recounted in The Man who Loved Only Numbers.
  • George Gaylord Simpson’s violent attacks on plate tectonics. Bad form Gaylord. He accepted it when it finally became consensus (p. 339 of this).
  • Florence Nightingale on miasma theory and always keeping the windows open in the hospital. She doesn’t make the list because she’s not really thought of as a scientist.
  • Psychologist Daryl Bem’s recent work on psi phenomena might count towards what I’m after, if the recent failures to reproduce it are definitive and Bem hasn’t recanted.
  • Recently, Luc Montagnier mingling in homeopathy and wacky autism theories (Nobel mention).
  • Maybe this is too political of me, but I’m going to add Noam Chomsky’s rhetorical maneuvers to make his linguistic theories unfalsifiable.
  • René-Prosper Blondlot and N-rays. Thanks to Martin Gardner, he’s usually considered to have taken these to his grave. He was deceiving himself, but I’m guessing he probably recanted after the big embarrassment.

“My pet fringe theory”

There are lots of examples of an otherwise good scientist inventing some crackpot theory are swearing by it forever.

  • Linus Pauling on Vitamin C (that it prevents/cures cancer) (Nobel)
  • Linus Pauling on orthomolecular medicine (Nobel)
  • Similarly, Louis Ignarro on the positive effects of NO on your heart (Nobel)
  • Physicist Gurwitsch on biophotons
  • While working on radios, Marconi was apparently v. predisposed to thinking he was talking to Martians
  • William Crookes on “radiant matter”
  • Ernst Haeckel’s pet continent Lemuria
  • Wilhelm Reich’s pet power Orgone
  • Tesla may have gone over the deep end for wireless energy transfer
  • Physicist Albert Crehore and the Crehore atom, recounted in Martin Gardner’s pretty purple book on fringe science
  • Biologist Alfred Russell Wallace’s allout occultism
  • Nobel Laureate Brian D. Josephson, ESP and homeopathy and PK and cold fusion
  • Carl Reichenbach, chemist, and the Odic Force
  • Physicist Samuel T. Cohen, inventor of the neutron bomb, and of “red mercury” nukes

“Sure I considered and even experimented with this wierd idea but I probably didn’t let it get the better of me”

Another less exciting category for people who redeemed and thus disqualified themselves from consideration above.

  • A lot of early 20th century scientists on established supernatural and extrasensory powers, incl. Albert Einstein, William James, and many more.
  • Jagadish Chandra Bose on sensation/perception in plants and inorganic compounds
  • Maybe Thomas Gold and abiogenic petroleum

“I’m smart and I believed this crazy thing but back then everyone else did too, so no biggie”

These are just people who believed in theories that became superceded, and there are more examples than I could ever enumerate. These are just the ones I sifted through looking for better examples

  • Anatomist Paul Broca and phrenology (covered in Martin Gardner’s Fads and Fallacies)
  • Isaac Newton and alchemy, the philosopher’s stone, and all kinds of other occult topics
  • Johann Joachim Becher and phlogiston
  • Einstein’s and Jaynes’ discomfort with QM
  • Astronomer Simon Newcomb was very skeptical that human flight would be possible, until it became possible. He was probably just being a good skeptic — after all, it is something people wanted to be true.
  • Michelson and aether. He accidentally disproved it and put lots of effort (too much?) into trying to show that his first experiment was wrong. Again, that’s maybe just good science.
  • Mendeleev’s coronium and the abiogenic theory of petroleum

“I’m not qualified to say so, but I’ll insist that this well-established thing in someone else’s field is a crock”

You’ll see that Nobel Prize winners are particularly susceptible

  • Hoyle against the Archaeopteryx
  • Hoyle on microbes from space
  • Lord Kelvin on microbes from space
  • William Shockley and eugenics (Nobel)
  • James Watson and his wackinesses (Nobel)
  • Kary Mullis off the deep end (Nobel)
  • Nikolaas Tinbergen’s controversial approach to autism (Nobel)
  • Arthur Schawlow and autism (Nobel)
  • Physicist Ivar Giaever against climate change (Nobel)

“I’m utterly fringe or worse”

Again, more of these than could ever be listed. These are just the ones I sifted through while hunting for better examples

  • Chandra Wickramasinghe carrying Hoyle’s panspermia flag
  • Andrew Wakefield and vaccines
  • Terence McKenna & timewave zero
  • Cleve Backster & primary perception
  • Franz Mesmer & animal magnetism

Recaps of the Nobel Prize winners

These are the best resources for learnings about Nobel Prize winners going off the deep end

  • intelligent design specifically:
  • and two guys not on either source (thanks), Johannes Stark (the other Lenard), and Arthur Schawlow (autism)

Leads I would go to if I was looking for more examples, and also relevant or cool stuff

I’d love to continue to grow this manifest. Ideas welcome.

  • Many medical professionals and focal infection theory
  • Any big names that got caught up in polywater, cold fusion, and the hafnium bomb. I don’t know any.
  • and Omphalos
  • Chalmers and Searle are dualists
  • The aiua of Leibniz
  • Barbara McClintock’s haters
  • and
  • Kronecker against Cantor’s revolutionary approach to infinity

Seeing the Earth, in the sky, from Earth

Uncountably many photons have come from the sun, bounced off of me, and shot back into space. One day one of them is going to come back. Photons turn as they pass heavy things. A photon retreating from me is being turned, slowly, over billions of empty years, all the way around. A black hole can turn them around in one shot. Ancient photons are returning simultaneously, from all over, right now.
What it means is that we can see ourselves in the sky. At least one of those dots is the Earth in the past. If we manage to see it at all, we won’t start out seeing much more than a fuzzy dot, “Yep, there it is.” But there could be thousands or millions of earths in the sky. Each fragile broken circuit of light is a channel, or rather a mirror, showing the earth as it was or wasn’t 1, 2, 5, 8 billion years ago. Between them, you have the entire history of the earth being projected back to it at each moment.
The most interesting action is in the past millions and thousands of years. To open up the Earth’s human past we would need a black hole very close, within a few thousand light years, like V4641 Sgr, 1600 light years away. I want to watch the decline of Rome. Going further back, I want to see the earthquake that split the temple curtain. And I want to look in the sky and see an ancestor’s eyes as they look up to God. Not to be God, but to make eye contact full of love, and excitement, and no answers.

“In the days of the frost seek a minor sun”

From unsympathetic eyes, no science is more arrogant than astronomy. Astronomers think that we can know the universe and replace the dreams and the meaning in the skies with a cold place that is constantly dying.
But I think that there is no more humble science than astronomy. No science has had so much romance imposed on it by the things that we want to be true, no other science has found a starker reality, and no other science has submitted so thoroughly. They’ve been so pummelled by what they’ve seen that they will believe absolutely anything that makes the equations balance out. As the wild story currently goes, the universe is growing at an accelerating rate because invisible matter woven into the universe is pulling the stars from each other. Its hard to swallow, and we don’t appreciate how astronomers struggled to face that story. They’ve accepted that the universe has no regard for our sense of sensibility, and they are finally along for the ride. I wish it was me, I want to see how much I’m missing by thinking I understand.

What it means to know things about early Christianity

I’ve been reading a lot about the history of early Christianity, and a lot of the theories and ideas that define it. A lot of the scholarship is totally wild, and a lot is pretty sound; some is both, but its all confusing, because these things get mixed together indiscriminately. It motivated me to create a taxonomy of “knowability” for theories about Christ and early Christianity. The taxonomy allowed me to craft a test by which I judge if a theory is worth taking seriously. For me to take a Bible theory seriously, it has to have more evidence than the suspicious theory that Jesus was a hypocrite and demagogue.

First, the taxonomy. It isn’t exactly a scale, and there is room for overlap and grey. It is still loose enough that two people could put the same theory into the pragmatic or reach categories, so this is currently only a personal taxonomy for establishing one’s own sense or the sense of a community that shares one’s assumptions.

  • Universally know: Assert the truth of. The existence of this type of knowing is justified by faith and only faith. The type of knowledge that good Christians hold for the existence of Christ and God.
  • Humanly know: know as well as its possible to know something (that I’m standing on a floor and its not demons). Beyond reasonable doubt. It can be proven wrong. The existence of Pilate, and of Jews and early Christians in the first century A.D. Probably the existence of Paul. Herod killing all those kids on 0 A.D.
  • Functionally know: Whether theory is completely satisfying or not, you can’t imagine an alternative. Not necessarily a failure of imagination; often any competing theory that accounts for the evidence is much more complicated. Existence of the apostles and maybe Paul. The books of the Torah existed around 0 A.D. and people in the Levant often knew someone who had actually read them. They were acquainted with the lore of those books.
  • Pragmatically know: Probably the best theory. Alternative theories could be maintained by a reasonable person, even the same person—there is still reasonable doubt. Every physicist knows that Newton’s billiard ball mechanics is “wrong,” but indistinguishable from the truth in an impressively wide range of problems. Existence of a Yeshua from Nazareth. Existence of Q document.
  • Reach: Theory could of course be true, but no more plausible than its opposite. Still, one may be more accepted than the other for historical reasons. Birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem and then to and fro Egypt—Could as easily have been ad hoc fabrication to satisfy prophecies in Isaiah. I’m putting here everything else that was prophesied by Isaiah, because these are things that people at the time wanted to be true: a Christ will come, he will be killed, resurrected, and seen, virgin birth/immaculate Conception, and he will perform miraculous healings (which have really gone out of fashion in modern Christianity).
  • Fringe: Theory could be true, other reasonable theories are more supported, or better supported. Existence of secret gospels from the first century.
  • Spurious: Fundamentally not knowable except below Pragmatic sense. More specifically, not knowable given current knowledge, and possibly future knowledge. Things prophesied by Isaiah, the existence of secret gospels from the first century. Armageddon happened way back in the first or second century A.D.. Armageddon will happen. Armageddon won’t happen. Mary M. and Jesus were doing it. Mary M. was an Apostle.
  • Wrong (Know not): theory has been falsified. That is, it could always wriggle its way to being true, but there exists current evidence on the subject (itself impressive when it comes to the history of early Christianity), and that evidence speaks against the thing. Infancy gospels were almost certainly not written before 200 or 300AD.

I’ll only warily assert anything into the faith type of knowing, and “beyond a reasonable doubt” is a luxury reserved for very few aspects of Biblical history. In general, I’m wary to assume that I know anything with more certainty than I know that I’ve got two feet on the ground, and even that is fair to call suspect. Going down the ladder, none of the theories I’m willing to work with can really be proven false, so I’m lowering the bar; falsifiability is too strict a standard for ancient history. Even without it, historians can establish things that are worth trying to establish. So how far down should I go?


Now that we’ve got a scale of knowing things about the history of early Christianity, I’m going to be the devil’s advocate and pose a reach/fringe theory that Jesus was a demagogue and a hypocrite. Its purpose is to serve as a criterion for judging other theories, and for establishing the legitimacy (in my eyes) of theories of ancient history. I’ll consider your theory if it is more plausible than the theory that Jesus was merely a human demagogue.

Here is the theory: Demagogues are people who preach a populist message, often to the poor, while themselves living within the means that they criticize.* Demamgogues happen. People want supernatural, and a demagogue can convey that without doing anything impossible. Here is the case that Jesus was living large, using only evidence from the Gospels, the most legitimate accounts of the Life of Christ: getting his hair perfumed, breaking Sabbath by not fasting, the thousands of loaves, the parable for rich people. From this theory it makes sense that he would say he isn’t having wine tomorrow night, and it explains the doting entourages that retrieved him donkey and presented lepers and blind people to him.

This theory is reach/fringe, but it errs on the side of pragmatic. It obviously has lots of problems as a theory, but that’s the point. I think that a more sympathetic read is at least as plausible, but also that a reasonable person could believe all of this.

Whether it is right or wrong is irrelevant. It is at least as true as the New Testament case against (for example) homosexuality *. Things I’m willing to work with: I think Q passes the test, also the existences of Herod and Pilate *, even the existence of Godfearers.

These theories that I’m willing to work with are above the border between reach/fringe and pragmatic. That’s the line I’ve drawn in helping myself know what I think.

Known self-proclaimed gods

The funny thing is I expected these lists to be longer:
You’ll find more among some of these:


This entry was posted on Friday, February 24th, 2012 and is filed under believers, lists.

The Godfearers

It is hard to find things that every strain of Christianity holds in common. One is that Christianity started with Jesus, and there were no glimmers of his visit outside of prophecy. The big prophecy at the time was apocalyptic: the End was near and a Christ would appear to take everyone there. But the New Testament is also full of more concrete social and cultural signs that a Greco-Roman Judiasm was already in the works.

The cleanest example is in The Godfearers. The Gospels and Acts are littered with God-fearers: non-Jews, many of them Romans, who believe in the Jewish God. What? How? What is their history? What was their role in the eventual growth of Christianity? What was their proportion? Were they growing? How? Why did it appeal to them? What did they think of the Jews? Of themselves? What were their struggles; what were the appealing perspectives from Greco-Roman culture that were hardest to reconcile with the compelling idea of a single fearsome creator? I have no idea, and there isn’t much on them (, but there is no question within the New testament that they were there before the beginning, and they were characters in both the birth and growth of Christianity.

I’m curious about the ways in which the Hellenistic worldview was behind Christianity’s innovations beyond Judiasm (Christianity: +, Judiasm: – , Greco-Romans: ? )

  1. focus on the impoverished,
  2. the abandonment of animal sacrifice,
  3. the popularity of rhetoric and logic play in sermon and argument,
  4. the idea of personal salvation,
  5. the emphasis on idea that salvation is in deeds and beliefs rather than descent and law, a sentiment reflected in the Gospel’s portrayal of the Pharisees.
  6. the concept of an immortal and immaterial soul that is separate from the body *

I’m curious about the interaction of this worldview with the aspects of Judaism that it shared, and that Christianity retained (Christianity: +, Judiasm: +, Greco-Romans: + )

  1. prophets and prophecy,
  2. offerings,
  3. the idea of a creation,
  4. temples and a priestly classes, and
  5. Heavens and Hells

And some of which were foreign to Hellenism (Christianity: +, Judiasm: +, Greco-Romans: – )

  1. apocalypse, and even the idea that the World can End,
  2. sin, and even the idea of deities that care what you think and do,
  3. the idea of sexual immorality (as a salient type of immorality, its an idea that is largely peculiar to Judeo-Christian-Islamic thought *),
  4. the importance of Old Testament history, narrative, and prophecy

I want to learn more, but not much is known about the Levant around that time. I think its impressive that we recently proved the historicity of Pilate. I’ll read what I can, though I don’t really know where to go next.


This entry was posted on Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012 and is filed under believers.