Monday, February 25, 2008

The Exegesis Impulse

I know, it sounds like a science fiction story, doesn't it? "Exegesis" is a very cool word in its own right, but when "impulse" enters the game you know the result is going to involve lots of polished metal and/or advanced biotech.

Sorry to disappoint. This is actually going to be a discussion of scripture.

The word "exegesis" originally comes from a Greek word meaning "to lead out" - to garner meaning from a text based on the words within it. That's a fair enough pursuit. It covers pretty much the whole range of Bible commentary - technically, any study of the Bible that doesn't make reference to contextual historical information is exegetical.

I was actually quite shocked to read this definition. For some time now, I've understood the word to have a subtly different meaning. Exegesis, in many contexts, means "filling in the gaps by making shit up". It's in this sense that I'll discuss the word.

The prevalence of exegesis

You don't have to go too far to see that exegesis is not a rare phenomenon. Your average nativity play will have a whole host of details that aren't in the original text - the three kings, for example, as opposed to an unspecified number of wise men.

A more fertile field for this activity is creationism. From a scant two chapters of Genesis, creationists have devised a complete history of events surrounding the Earth's origins. It's got everything: huge sheets of water inexplicably falling from low orbit, a fascinating "hydrological sorting" effect to explain why trilobites always appear lower than turtles in the fossil record, holes in the Earth's crust for the water to hide in afterwards, etc. Some versions even have complex relativistic effects to explain how we can see 10,000,000,000-year-old starlight in a 6,000-year-old universe.

All these variants have two things in common. Firstly, they're completely implausible. To pick on one example, hydrological sorting can't account for the different radiological signatures of different layers, because lots of swirling water is too crude a tool to distinguish between isotopes.

Secondly, they're nowhere to be found in the Bible. Genesis doesn't say anything about fossils or plate tectonics or relativity. These ideas are exegesis - people see that Genesis doesn't appear to match up with reality, so they make shit up to fill the gaps.

How far back?

Exegesis is also not a recent phenomenon - even as early as the second century AD, people were adding little "finishing touches" to scripture. For example, in the Eastern Orthodox Church, it's strongly believed that Jesus was born in a cave. This is not mentioned anywhere in the scriptures, although it does show up in a couple of Gnostic gospels and in the beliefs of sundry contemporaneous religions about their messiahs.

So how far does the rot go? How can we tell?

One easy way to detect exegesis is what you might call a "comparative biology" of stories. For this I'll call on the writings of a blogrollee of mine, who discusses his deconversion story here. Come back when you've read it, OK?

As this story indicates, a major feature of exegesis is that it gives different results every time you do it. After all, if the meaning of your source was obvious then you wouldn't need to make shit up to fill in the gaps. So all we need to look for is completely different versions of the same story, and we'll know that one or both of the authors is happily exegesising.

A tale of two gospels

Enter Matthew and Luke. It's long been known that these two gospels share a lot of material with Mark and with each other, often word-for-word. The current best guess at which came first is known as the Synoptic Hypothesis. It's generally believed that Mark was first on the scene, and that Matthew and Luke had copies of his work handy as they wrote.

The reason for this is simple. Where Mark tells a simple story or leaves a gap, Matthew and Luke tend to elaborate - and they do so in completely different ways. Consider, for example, the Nativity story. Take the version in Matthew (Matt 1:18-2:23) and the version in Luke (Luke 2:1-40), and compare them. You will find precisely five points of overlap: the names of Joseph, Mary and Jesus, and the towns of Bethlehem and Nazareth.

Everything else, and I mean everything is completely different. Herod and the slaughter of the innocents are mentioned only in Matthew. Quirinius' census is mentioned only in Luke. Matthew talks of magi. Luke talks of shepherds. Matthew says the family fled to Egypt. Luke says that the family wandered over to Jerusalem. And will you just look at the two different lineages given for Jesus...

With sufficient rhetorical wriggling (exegesis!) it's almost possible to construct a single story that covers all the options. But, to be quite blunt, why the heck would you want to? There's so little overlap between these stories that they might as well be about different people.

To me, the reason for this lack of overlap is fairly simple. The authors of Matthew and Luke would have known that Jesus' parents were called Joseph and Mary. They would have known that Jesus came from Nazareth. And they'd have noticed a prophecy in Isaiah suggesting that the Messiah would have been born in Bethlehem. They took these facts and... exegesised. Matthew used Herod as his bogeyman to drive Joseph and Mary out of Bethlehem, whilst Luke took a completely different but believably bureaucratic option by attempting to link the birth to a Roman census.

Taking this as our working hypothesis, it instantly becomes clear why the historical census of Quirinius appears to have happened well before Jesus' birth, and why no contemporary author mentions such a barbarous act as the slaughter of innocents (despite trumpeting a range of Herod's infamies). It's because Matthew and Luke were making shit up.

How far back? redux

You'll notice that, up until now, I've been treating Mark as a reliable source, and only expressing skepticism about Matthew and Luke. There's a very simple reason for this: we have no earlier Gospels, so we have no way of knowing which aspects of Mark were historical and which were innovation.

Until very recently, I wasn't really bothered by this. Probably a few things in Mark were exaggerated a bit, but I saw no reason to disagree with the core of the story. Now, though, my feelings are different.

I've seen how fast exegesis can proceed, even in this modern information age where debate and criticism thrive. I've seen that exegesis was at least as powerful in ancient times - by most estimates, Matthew and Luke were written no more than a decade or so later than Mark. I've started to explore the motivations for these differences, in particular the three-way struggle between Romans, Jews and Christians that inspired much of the Bible's antisemitism. And I'm troubled.

As far as we can tell, Jesus died no later than 40AD. As far as we can tell, Mark was written no earlier than 65AD. That's at least 25 years gap, double the distance between Mark and the other synoptic Gospels.

Given that much time, and that much room for exegesis, how do we know that Mark wasn't... making shit up?
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Sunday, February 17, 2008

Skeptic's credo

One common rejoinder that we skeptics hear is "what about love and friendship and so on? Are you saying we should be skeptical about them too?"

It's true that the scientific method is not necessarily the best tool to handle other people. As I've discussed previously, science tends to say "never attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by incompetence", even where a wise man would be saying "once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, three times is enemy action". Science tends to downplay the importance of individual correlations, secure in the knowledge that in the long run any genuine effect will show up again.

Most skeptics are aware of this. The scientific method to us is an ideal: if you have the time to apply it fully then that's wonderful, but in most cases that isn't an option. So to say "skeptics disagree with irrationality" is simplistic. In reality, our position is more nuanced. One statement of it would be:

It’s OK to be irrational as long as you don’t treat your shot-in-the-dark guesses as the final word, and are willing to discard them when better options come along.

That has applications far beyond the study of nature.
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Go Google!

I just noticed that Blogger now allows people to sign their comments using OpenID, a truly cool idea that I'm hoping will take off. The basic principle is that, rather than one company (say Microsoft) running an identity-management system (say Microsoft Passport) that no-one else can interoperate with, we should instead develop a system that's "distributed". In other words, anyone should be able to start up their own identity server at any time.

Most other components of the internet have already gone this route. You can use email without your ISP having Microsoft Exchange installed (thank Darwin). You can set up a website without your web host having Microsoft IIS. But identity management still operates as a series of "walled gardens", with each forum or group you sign up to demanding its own username/password combo. It's an unuseable mess.

Better to have a system where anyone can set up their own identity server, or their own account on someone else's server, and have it recognised by all the "identity consumers" (forums etc). I'm expecting Google to start up its own OpenID server in the near future, and I can't wait!

Other interoperability things I'm hopeful about: the OpenDocument format for breaking down the walls between Office applications, MetaPlace for creating easier motion between virtual worlds, BugLabs for encouraging greater reusability of gadget components, and OpenMoko for making it possible to "unbundle" phone software and hardware.

I should mention that IMO there's a small chance that MetaPlace will go evil. It's not actually possible to set up your own MetaPlace server yet - at the moment its just a very big walled garden with lots of sub-gardens. Until the system is truly distributed, the MetaPlace company will have a somewhat unhealthy amount of power.

OpenMoko and BugLabs may be hitting the opposite issue - it's taking them worryingly long to release a commercial product. Openness is not a magic wand, sadly.

In each of these cases, though, the idea is damn good, and the fact that someone's doing something about it is guaranteed to be extremely disruptive, regardless of immediate outcomes. In the technology world, disruption is good.

So much so, in fact, that I'd strongly recommend everyone ensure that they're able to receive OpenDocument files. Since Microsoft is currently being a refusenik (for obvious reasons), this will mean you'll need to download a free Office product such as OpenOffice. Have fun!
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So much for La Resistance

The problem of psychological blocks is as old as humanity. There are so many actions that would sometimes be both beneficial and socially acceptable to perform, but we just can't bring ourselves to. Trying to convince yourself to perform a task that you just don't wanna do is like trying to claw your way out of a very deep, very slippery well.

I've just been given the proverbial leg up. For the past month, I've been working in my company's Business Development team (aka sales), and a big part of what this team does is cold calling. Not the sleazy 7:00-call-when-you're-in-the-bath cold calling, I hasten to add. This is strictly business-to-business stuff - the people we're calling up are managers who are paid to handle this crap.

And it's a job that needs doing. No company can survive without new business and, while ideally we'd garner new work by word-of-mouth, for a small company like ours that just isn't fast enough.

Sadly, my psyche didn't get the message. For some time now, I've just been sitting there, allegedly making calls but in practice finding every excuse I can to avoid picking up the phone. The aversion I feel is incredible, and scarily subtle. It's like that scene in Lord Of The Rings where Bilbo "decides" to give the ring to Frodo, and sets off without being consciously aware that it's still in his pocket.

As a result, until this week, I've been functionally unable to make many calls. On a good day I'd make one call, maybe two, and then I'd find something else to distract myself with. This has been setting up immense cognitive dissonance, because I know I should be doing it. I just couldn't bring myself to. I've been a very unhappy bunny.

However, as of earlier this week, there are signs of change. On Wednesday, I was feeling extremely tired. I couldn't even muster the brainpower to think about the pros and cons of calling. I just picked up the phone and left some of the most incoherent messages ever entrusted to voicemail. It was only at the end of the day that I realised: hey, I just made five calls. What the heck?

On Thursday and Friday, the change continued. I reached for the phone, I felt the block, but I knew I could ignore it. I was able to make five calls a day, and this coming week I'm looking to increase the rate.

This is the first time I've really been motivated to overcome such a deep-rooted mental block, and the ripples of this change are still spreading. I know my enemy now, and I know that I can overcome it. That knowledge lets me do things that I never thought possible. Maybe I'll finally learn to ask girls out...

Funnily enough, this experience has a lot of shared features with some of the conversion stories I've read. I'm not an alcoholic or a drug abuser, but I was as constrained as any of them in my actions. Those constraints resulted in very deep tiredness - so deep that my overactive superego shut down for a bit. At that point, the slightest push was enough to get me over the hurdle. Such a push could well come from religion, but it apparently doesn't have to.
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Oh yeah...

...Sadly, the aforementioned gunk about female education probably wouldn't work on those Western countries (you know who you are) with large populations of fast-breeding semi-educated folk. In these cases, the power of education is devalued by the fact that everyone else has it too. Getting a degree in English is, genetically speaking, a complete waste of time if you end up flipping burgers anyway.

I'm honestly not sure how to handle this second-phase population boom.
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Thursday, February 14, 2008

On Charity

The parable of the sparrows

Imagine a little old lady sitting at her window. She looks out and sees a flock of the local sparrows desperately pecking at the frozen ground, trying to find food where none exists. In her kind-heartedness, she gets out of her chair, fetches some bread, and scatters it around the door. The sparrows descend on the bread in a cloud of tiny fluttering wings, and the nourishment it provides gets them through the day.

The next day, the little old lady sees the sparrows hungry again, and feeds them some more bread. This turns into a habit that she keeps up for the rest of the Winter. As a result, many more sparrows survive the cold.

The following year, the sparrows breed at their usual rate of a couple of surviving offspring per adult. But, because there were more adults, there are more offspring. More survive the Autumn.

When Winter strikes, the little old lady's heart breaks for the sparrows. She feeds them again and again, and far more survive than would usually have done so. The following year, the flock size increases yet again.

The next Winter, the sparrows frantically peck round the old lady's door, but she isn't there. She's gone to live with her daughter in Melbourne.

Any observer watching the poor starving birds struggle and fail and die in the snow would have to ask themselves: was the old lady actually compassionate, if her actions resulted in more sparrows starving to death than would otherwise have done so?

Malthus strikes back

Painful though it may be to make the link with human populations, the analogy is inevitable. In many poor countries, most members of the population are happy to breed at the maximum possible rate. And, if we include this "animal assumption" in our assessment, we can see that cataclysm - war, famine or plague - is inevitable.

Many commenters have looked at the world today, in all its technological glory, and asked why, if our science is so advanced, we can't cure world hunger or bring an end to disease. Some even declare this to be a failing of science, that it can't welcome us into an age of universal utopia.

But the problem isn't science. The problem is that the people we have in this world are too inclined to squander the windfalls which science offers. Science is no more culpable for hunger in Burundi (with its 3.6%pa population growth rate) than it is for the AIDS-related deaths of South Africans (whose president is an AIDS denialist). Technological solutions to social problems almost never work.

Darwin takes his due

So the question becomes: how do we break the "animal assumption" of blind increases in population size? The problem is that, in many circumstances, this increase is actually the best evolutionary strategy. In a high-risk environment such as your average third-world country, the more kids you have, the better your genes' chance of survival in the short term. It's a classic tragedy of the commons.

But why isn't this true in the western world too? How have we overcome this paradox?

The answer seems to be: education. An educated population is in general slower-breeding than an uneducated one. In particular, education of females makes a hell of a difference.

There are two obvious reasons for this. Firstly, a good educational system will typically include some sex education, which reduces the chance of "accidents". This alone could be a major aid in poor countries, but its effect is limited by the fact that (for the aforementioned Darwinian reasons) people want to have kids early and often.

Secondly, and more significantly, education creates opportunities. If you're a young woman without education, you've got no prospects - the only consequence of waiting to have kids will be to reduce the number you can have. If you're a young woman with education, though, waiting to have kids may give you the chance to grab a high-paying job, earn lots of money, and thus raise the kids in an environment where their survival odds are greater.


Charity that treats its recipients as animals, that simply feeds, shelters and heals them, may make the donor feel warm and tingly in the short term, but in the long term it's self-defeating. If we're going to perform acts of pure charity, we should do so in a way that achieves greater happiness for a greater number. We can only do that by breaking the "animal assumption".

In this post, I've discussed one possible way of achieving this: education, and particularly education of girls. If anyone knows of any others, please tell me. In the meantime, I know where my money is going to go.

Hat tip to Berlzebub at the Common Ground group blog for reminding me I had this essay in my Drafts folder.
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