Ratzinger Prize to Richard Burridge

Pope Francis (right) presenting Richard Burridge (left) with the 2013 Ratzinger Prize
Pope Francis (right) presenting Richard Burridge (left) with the 2013 Ratzinger Prize

First Things has an excellent article in the January issue dedicated to biblical scholar Richard Burridge, who recently became the first non-Roman Catholic to receive the Ratzinger Prize (virtually the Nobel Prize in Theology). The article is a fantastic tribute to Burridge and covers his impact on New Testament scholarship in a brief, but highly informative way. In the 1980s, biblical scholars typically saw the Gospels as legends or mythology (perhaps midrash or something of that nature). But Burridge’s book What Are the Gospels?: A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography turned the tide, demonstrating that the Gospels fit the genre of ancient Greco-Roman “Lives” i.e. biographies. In these ancient biographies, 15-25% of the narrative focused on “the hero’s attitude to his death and his final acts or words” (the Gospels range from 15-30%). Furthermore, 25-30% of verbs in ancient biographies “have the hero as the subject, and an additional 15 to 30 percent of the verbs are found in the hero’s sayings, speeches, or quotations. This concentration of verbs is found in no other genre of ancient literature. The gospels have the same concentration of verbs” (pg. 22-23). In later work, Burridge explained that “Greco-Roman biography is an invitation to imitate,” therefore “both what Jesus says and what Jesus does are important” (pg. 23).

Christian philosopher William Lane Craig does a fine job in the video below explaining the contemporary take on the literary genre of the Gospels. And we have Burridge to thank for it.

Middle Eastern Christians: No One Cares

In Egypt, a 17-year-old boy is choked by his teacher and then beaten to death by his classmates for defiantly displaying his cross necklace. A rumored relationship between a Muslim girl and a Christian boy leads “to the burning of multiple churches, and the imposition of a curfew on a local Christian population.” In June 2013, “a cluster of Christian villages was totally destroyed” in Syria and “of the 4,000 inhabitants of the village of Ghassanieh… no more than 10 people remain.” In Iraq between 2004 and 2011, “the population of Chaldo-Assyrian Christians fell from over a million to as few as 150,000.” So reports The Week, which goes on to note “the clueless and callous behavior of Western governments in these episodes.” While “Western activists and media have focused considerable outrage at Russia’s laws against “homosexual propaganda” in the lead-up to the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics,” they fail to “protest (or at the very least notice) laws that punish people with death for converting to Christianity.” As journalist Ed West, “citing the French philosopher Regis Debray,” puts it: “The victims are ‘too Christian’ to excite the Left, and ‘too foreign’ to excite the Right.”

Million Dollar Addiction


Sam Polk, a derivatives trader who earned millions of dollars a year for several years working on Wall Street wrote a piece for the New York Times that I found well worth reading. It largely speaks for itself, but I’d like to mention how frightening it is to see the difference in attitudes between people like Sam Polk’s colleagues and “regular” people. Polk paints a picture of a culture in which the only thing that has any meaning is money, and money, for many of them, is little more than a status marker, like a high score in a video game. They’re addicted, and they’ll do anything to maintain their high.

I’m not one to begrudge anyone their fortune, at least as long as they’ve earned it within the bounds of the law and ethical standards, but it forced me to wonder if my own personal pursuit of some modicum of wealth is or may get in the way of the things that actually make me happy. Am I more interested in simply “having” the money, or do I actually want it for some worthwhile purpose: financial security, putting my future kids through college, giving to charity, learning new things, developing things that make people’s lives better?

Finding the Right Naturalism in Science

You have probably all heard how religion is the enemy of science. Let me say something you may not have heard: Naturalism represents an equally dangerous foe for the scientific enterprise. How can that be, you ask? Science is a naturalistic enterprise, isn’t it? Well, yes and no. Science is what we call methodologically naturalist in that it “assum[es] naturalism in working methods, without necessarily considering naturalism as an absolute truth with philosophical entailments.” Hence the old recognition that science cannot answer all of our questions as human beings, nor did it ever intend to. However, there are those who take naturalism beyond the realm of science and into the metaphysical, stating that nothing exists beyond our physical world. They are known unsurprisingly as metaphysical naturalists.

Since science is methodologically naturalist, it has become natural (pun intended) for many metaphysical naturalists to adopt science as their standard of belief. In keeping with that adoption, many naturalists see it as their duty to defend science against the supernatural. I contend that naturalists, in trying to defend science, threaten instead to introduce the evils of the worst religious orthodoxy into science. I believe this outcome can occur for two main reasons:

First, many naturalists substitute science as their source of metaphysical belief since they lack any metaphysical claims of their own aside from rejecting all metaphysical claims. People are generally resistant to their beliefs being challenged, and so if people’s metaphysical beliefs are inextricably tied to their scientific beliefs, they are going to be much more dogmatic about scientific theories. And where, for example, a Christian might be content to simply reject science, leaving himself or herself sadly bereft of scientific knowledge but science itself fine, the naturalist, deriving their knowledge from science alone, has no choice but to try and warp science into not just an empirical expression but a metaphysical one as well–an orthodoxy about the nature of existence. This orthodoxy most often takes the form of believing that all reliable human experiences and knowledge must be reducible to an empirical level. Naturalistic orthodoxy strikes at heart of science itself by trying to make science into the new orthodoxy and thereby destroy the questioning and theorizing that makes the scientific enterprise possible.

2014-01-30 Karl Popper
Karl Popper

The signs of this orthodoxy are clear enough in how people speak about science. We may rightly say that scientific theories are well-tested and highly explanatory. We may not say they are proven or true, and yet many people choose these exact words. I cannot state this point emphatically enough. Anyone who says science proves theories is making an anti-scientific statement. Karl Popper, the famous philosopher of science, played a large role in asserting this view of science:

Scientific theories, for [Popper], are not inductively inferred from experience, nor is scientific experimentation carried out with a view to verifying or finally establishing the truth of theories; rather, all knowledge is provisional, conjectural, hypothetical—we can never finally prove our scientific theories, we can merely (provisionally) confirm or (conclusively) refute them; hence at any given time we have to choose between the potentially infinite number of theories which will explain the set of phenomena under investigation. Faced with this choice, we can only eliminate those theories which are demonstrably false, and rationally choose between the remaining, unfalsified theories. Hence Popper’s emphasis on the importance of the critical spirit to science—for him critical thinking is the very essence of rationality. For it is only by critical thought that we can eliminate false theories, and determine which of the remaining theories is the best available one, in the sense of possessing the highest level of explanatory force and predictive power.

My pronouncement may seem like a semantics game–people conceivably could use ‘proven’ as shorthand for the much bulkier ‘well-tested and highly explanatory’–but I believe a view more worrying is at play when people state, “Science has proven this theory.” They are using science not as an expression of our current best understanding of the natural world, but as the only understanding they believe we will ever have about existence.

2014-01-30 Dan Kahan
Dan Kahan

Believing science has shown us the only true understanding of the world leads to yet another problem: People begin to conflate accepting scientific conclusions as a measure of how well you understand science. Since science is the truth, if you do not accept it, that must mean you simply do not understand it. This is another anti-scientific attitude. As Dan Kahan rightly points out in the comments sections of his “Cultural Cognition” blog, a brief study of scientific history reveals the necessity of decoupling understanding theories from accepting theories in order to produce new scientific theories. Dr. Kahan cites how Einstein needed to understand and yet reject Newtonian physics to come up with relativity, just as proponents of quantum physics needed to understand and yet reject relativity to come up with quantum physics. Orthodoxy does not allow you to decouple understanding and acceptance: If the final truth has been discovered, you only reject it for lack of understanding.

Second, for some naturalists, their strongest commitment is to naturalism, not science, and therefore they will be highly opposed to any scientific theory that conflicts with naturalism or gives credence to supernatural claims. A good example of this point is the Steady State Theory. Steady State Theory was a popular theory in the early to mid 20th century and stated that the universe has always existed, in contrast to the Big Bang theory which has a clear beginning of the universe. As PBS puts mildly, “[t]his struck a philosophical chord with a number of scientists, and the steady-state theory gained many adherents in the 1950s and 1960s.” The theory was only abandoned after a long struggle and discovery of strong falsifying evidence in part due to the popular philosophical implications of the theory among naturalist scientists.

To be fair, problems can and have arisen when scientific theories conflict (or seemingly conflict) with supernatural claims. My point here is not to set up a competition between supernaturalism and naturalism over who is the “true” defender of science. Neither group is. The true defender of science is anyone who recognizes that any orthodoxy is a threat to the scientific enterprise. Thus Karl Popper invites us all to become defenders of science, not by what particular metaphysical beliefs we hold or reject, but by upholding this opposition to orthodoxy in our quest for greater understanding of the world in which we live:

I hope that my proposals may be acceptable to those who value not only logical rigour but also freedom from dogmatism; who seek practical applicability, but are even more attracted by the adventure of science, and by discoveries, which again and again confront us with new and unexpected questions, challenging us to try out new and hitherto undreamed-of answers.

As a final note, I cannot state enough how large of a role Dan Kahan played in getting my mind turning on this subject. I have shared Karl Popper’s views on the scientific enterprise for some time, but Dan Kahan helped me start connecting my understanding of the philosophy of science to modern day issues in science. His blog can be found here.

Who Is More Rawlsian: Mormons or Swedes?

The Nordic countries (particularly Sweden) have been held up by many as the utopias of the future. But journalist Michael Booth has a recent piece in The Guardian demonstrating that the praise may be overdone. For example, the OECD reports that Danes work fewer hours per year than most of Europe while having the highest level of private debt in the world. They even have the fourth largest per capita ecological footprint in the world (higher than the US). But if you ask the Danes, “they will tell you that the Norwegians are the most insular and xenophobic of all the Scandinavians, and it is true that since they came into a bit of money in the 1970s the Norwegians have become increasingly Scrooge-like, hoarding their gold, fearful of outsiders.” Booth describes Sweden as having a “distinctive brand of totalitarian modernism, which curbs freedoms, suppresses dissent in the name of consensus, and seems hell-bent on severing the bonds between wife and husband, children and parents, and elderly on their children. Think of it as the China of the north. Youth unemployment is higher than the UK’s and higher than the EU average” and “integration is an ongoing challenge.” Perhaps this is why the Nordic countries have been cutting back their welfare states (which helped end Sweden’s depression in the 1990s). The market has been taking over Sweden’s health care system, with Swedes increasingly purchasing private health insurance.

I’m curious as to whether the U.S. should be looking across the pond for a Rawlsian utopia or if the answer can be found in some of its own metropolitan areas. As sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox points out,

According to a recent study from Harvard and UC-Berkeley, out of the largest 100 metropolitan regions in the country, the Salt Lake City area is best at promoting absolute economic mobility for lower-income children…Children from the bottom 20% of the national income distribution in the Salt Lake City region were more likely to “reach the top 20% of the national income distribution” as adults than poor children hailing from any other major metropolitan region in America…[T]he Harvard-Berkeley study…found that the most powerful (negative) correlate of such mobility was the share of single moms in a region. This means that children were most likely to realize the American dream when they came from regions—like the Salt Lake City area—with comparatively strong families.Utah, for instance, has some of the lowest rates of nonmarital childbearing and highest shares of its adult population married of any state. Likewise, the study also found that the strength of a region’s civil society was strongly correlated to economic mobility. Communities rich in social capital and religiosity, for instance, were more likely to foster economic mobility for children. And Utah is one of the most religious states in the country, and it scores high on national indices of social trust…[R]ealizing the Rawlsian vision of justice for the least among us, and giving poor kids a shot at the American dream, may depend on the nation’s capacity to revive communitarian virtues and institutions.

So, which utopian model is best: the Mormons or the Swedes?

Male Cover: “Let It Go” From ‘Frozen’

Disney’s Frozen was, as summarized at Rotten Tomatoes, “beautifully animated, smartly written, and stocked with singalong songs…[A]nother worthy entry to the Disney canon.” While Olaf’s “In Summer” stole the show, you can’t get “Let It Go” out of your head. The film version features Idina Menzel (of Wicked and Glee fame) on vocals, while the single (and inferior) version features Demi Lovato. Like every other song known to man, a bagillion covers showed up on YouTube. However, Caleb Hyles‘ cover below caught my attention. Listen all the way through. I was only mildly impressed with the first verse and chorus. And then he changed octaves…

Hope you all enjoy it as much as I did.

Assortative Mating and Income Inequality

In his book Coming Apart, political/social scientist Charles Murray examined the divorce rates among both the working class (“Fishtown”) and professional (“Belmont”) whites.

Image result for coming apart divorce

Not only is the educated, professional class staying married, they are marrying each other. A new NBER paper “Marry Your Like: Assortative Mating and Income Inequality” finds that this factor has a major impact on income inequality (see my previous “Inequality and Demographics“).

Once again, family factors help explain much of the income inequality we see today.

2014 Grammy Performances: Metallica & Daft Punk

I don’t particularly care for the Grammys. Half the time, I’m not up-to-date enough with new artists to know who is winning (typically, I don’t care for them when I do know who they are). On the other hand, Grammy performances can sometimes be pretty rad. For example, Metallica joined with Chinese pianist Lang Lang to perform the Grammy-nominated (lost to Jethro Tull) “One” from their 1988 album …And Justice For All. While it is no S&M, it is still rockin’.

The next standout was Daft Punk (who went home with Album of the Year for Random Access Memories) with Pharrell Williams, Nile Rodgers, and Stevie Wonder performing “Get Lucky” (which won Record of the Year). The performance works in Daft Punk’s “Harder Better Faster Stronger,” “Lose Yourself to Dance,” Stevie Wonder’s “Another Star,” and Chic’s (Nile Rodgers’ band) “Le Freak.”

Deirdre McCloskey & “Worship Through Corporeality”

A while back, I co-authored a couple posts with Allen Hansen over at Worlds Without End on an important thread running through Mormonism: the religious significance often attached to secular acts. Part one explored this phenomenon in light of similar traditions in Judaism, specifically Hasidism and its “worship through corporeality.” Part two added managerial perspectives and its connection to eternal progression.

Deirdre McCloskey, Distinguished Professor of Economics, History, English, and Communication at the University of Illinois at Chicago, has a Nov. 2013 piece that draws on Christian history to express the morality and theology of work and self-development. Readers of my posts with Allen will find that many of McCloskey’s ideas resonate with the idea of “worship through corporeality.”

Check it out.