RESPONDblogs: Human Beings are Unique

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What are we?

 

I listened to an interesting talk recently from Simon Conway Morris, who is Chair of Evolutionary Paleo biology at the Dept. of Earth Sciences at Cambridge University.

 

He asks the question – are we essentially just more “evolved” animals that belong on Darwin’s incremental tree of life? Or is there something unique about people compared to the animals? However much time has elapsed, perhaps we aren’t just naturally selected incremental improvement? Rather – we are something different altogether.

 

Evolutionary theory has drummed into us that we are essentially no different from other animal species. We’re related to other hominids. We are just matter – we are physical – we are all related. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard this idea.

 

Or are we? As Morris says, “Maybe it’s not as simple as that.”[1]

 

 

First – we often misunderstand the animals we invest our lives in.

Morris thinks we have a habit of reading ourselves into the animals we relate to. Our relationship with dogs is a perfect example of this, he says. We humanize them…and they are happy to play along with our delusion. But crucially – as Morris points out – the evidence suggests that dogs have no idea what is going on inside our minds. They react to stimuli – they learn what actions and objects mean and sound like. Nothing more.

 

Dogs live happy and fulfilled lives as our pets. But we are of a different order to them.

 

We are not the only intelligent species on the planet – but it seems that our consciousness is of a completely different order to anything else. We live in an extended universe – the animals are confined to a monotonic universe. And they are happy that it is so.

 

What experimental evidence does Morris appeal to in making this claim?

 

Second – Morris offers the following evidence:

 

1 – Humans Uniquely Understand Cause and Effect

There’s evidence that crows are very intelligent. An experiment has been done where the bird has to perform a task – drop stones into a container – in order to raise the water level so it can have a drink. The fascinating thing is – often the crow will work this out. It will find and deposit the stones to raise the water level.

It is tempting to assume then – that it understands cause and effect, that it gets the implication of what it’s doing. Unfortunately – when the conditions of the experiment change – it becomes clear that the crow doesn’t understand this.

Yes, it has memory, yes its intelligent. But no, it’s not building up an understanding of nature. It can do one thing well – and that involves survival.

 

2 – Humans Live in an Out of the Box Culture

We can think in terms of “analogy”; we are meta-thinkers that can work outside of the box. We explore seemingly unrelated ideas and come up with ingenious solutions to problems.

A simple example of this is – humans use tools. We employ them in many tasks, and the evidence suggests we have done this for a long time. Chimpanzees also use tools.

Yet we go beyond them; we live outside the box. We are the only species we know today that creates tools to build tools. What’s more, we rely on the discoveries and processes laid down by previous tool builders as we do so. Human culture is cumulative, it builds on itself.

Animals like chimpanzees don’t exhibit this behaviour at all. They use tools, they have a culture. But they don’t appear to KNOW they have a culture, and they don’t build tools to make tools.

Morris opines, “This sounds like a trivial difference. But it might be larger than we realize.”[2]

 

3 – Human Culture Features Teaching and Learning

Humans have a sophisticated approach to teaching. We have a self-referential pedagogical approach – the teacher observes the pupil and knows where their mind is currently at. Through observation, the teacher works to move the student forward to where they need to be. We intuitively sense the student’s mind.

Do animals? Morris refers to various species of Ant, Meercat and chimp. And the scientific observation to date suggests that which the animals instinctively develop habits and abilities, they do so in a simple way. Animals don’t go to University like humans do. We are of a different order.

Do animals have false beliefs about the world? Do they have a theory of mind? Current understanding says no, it doesn’t look like it.

 

4 – Human Language is Very Peculiar Indeed

Morris refers to Vervet Monkeys who have been observed to make sounds that seem to relate to other animals in their habitat like a leopard, a snake and an eagle. This sounds like it could be a proto-language, like the foundations of our own language capabilities?

Well, clearly, we have words that also refer to objects and concepts. This blog post is full of them! But our language isn’t just a more evolved version of the Vervet Monkey’s sound. Why?

Morris points to two peculiar aspects of human language:

  • We can say things that go beyond a single meaning. Our communication can have an infinite number of meanings, depending on the context it is used in.
  • We have a bottomless depth of rich imagination in human discussion. We easily move between factual and fictional statements. And we have the ability to create fictional worlds – completely unrelated to our own – where the reader can enter through their imagination. And the fictional world resonates deeply with them.

 

5 – Humans Apply Mathematics in a Unique Way

Experiments suggest that Guppy fish exhibit numericity. They are able to judge relative numbers in terms of distance and size.

For example, if some were to say – “Imagine you have a stone and a feather. How much do I have to add or remove from each to perceive a difference in their weights?” It turns out that I have to add or remove quite a lot from the stone, but not very much at all to the feather to notice a weight change. This is numericity…and Guppy fish can do something similar to this.

Is this proto-maths? Well, it’s called a psycho-physical sensory effect by the scientists. But to suggest it is proto-maths is nonsense to Morris.

Mathematics is a rich conceptual language that bridges the abstract and the physical. Maths:

  • involves abstract entities that don’t exist; numbers, complex numbers.
  • requires that we can do sums like addition and subtraction. Animals can’t seem to do that.

 

 

Conclusion

Are we just advanced chimpanzees? Morris suggests this well-worn message fails to recognize the uniqueness of human beings. It underplays our conscious, thinking abilities that came up with that inadequate theory in the first place.

Humans are of a different order to animals. We have “dominion over the natural world” and uniquely exhibit the characteristics of our Creator.[3] This is not just the Bible’s opinion, it is born out in our relation to those animals we were supposed to care for.

But aren’t we just physical beings like the animals? Is brain simply a biological computing engine? Morris thinks otherwise. He’s a substance dualist. Mind and brain are different aspects of human existence.

The physical human brain seems to be more than a biological information processing organ. It’s a filter. Our intangible, human mind exists independently of our physical bodies. Our brain is part of the mechanism we use for intercepting, exploring and harnessing what goes on in our minds.

People aren’t just more advanced than the animals. We’re built specially; we’re of a different order altogether.

 

Image courtesy of New Old Stock.

[1] Simon Conway Morris, The Emergence of Life, James Gregory Lectures on Science and Christianity, https://itunes.apple.com/gb/podcast/james-gregory-lectures-on-science-and-christianity/id917410241?mt=2&i=1000382210716.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Genesis 1:26 – 27.

 

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RESPONDblogs: The “Buddhist Jesus” Claim…and BATMAN!

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A friend sent me a Youtube link to a documentary that the BBC put together a few years ago asking the question – “Was Jesus a Buddhist Monk?”

 

Here’s the link I used to watch it (apologies if the link no longer works for you)

Jesus Was a Buddhist Monk (BBC Documentary)

 

The documentary makers claim that, because the Bible contains no description of Jesus of Nazareth between the ages of 14 and 29, that he must have gone to live in India to learn Buddhist ways. (of course!) Further, after surviving his crucifixion by the Roman Government, instigated by the Jewish religious leaders, Jesus fled to India and lived out the remainder of his natural life there.

 

This is a fascinating and fun story as it plays out. It reminded me very much of the story told about the comic book character Bruce Wayne, who spent his formative years learning from Ra’s al Guhl, his spiritual mentor, before returning home and donning his cape and cowl…”I’m Batman!” The documentary also feels very “Da Vinci Code”…which may give a clue to the dating of the piece itself.

 

From comic books + novels + movies …and back to history. This documentary attempts to dismiss the New Testament claim of Jesus supernatural resurrection from the dead and his ascension. And it portrays the people of Jesus’ time as gullible dupes who were setup to perpetuate the Christianity myth, while Jesus himself legged it back to Kashmir to live out his days there.

 

One wonders WHY the first Christians would be willing to be duped like that. Given that history and tradition indicates that all but one of Jesus’ inner circle were martyred for their faith in Jesus as God, killed for their persistence in sharing the world changing message that everyone who believes in Jesus can be sure of a resurrection body something like his in the future. Why would anyone die for a lie…when they personally knew the truth that their Jesus was really just an ordinary bloke…living an ordinary life…somewhere due East of ancient Israel? Certainly…the documentary makes no attempt at touching this rather relevant question.

 

Instead – it chooses SOME of the historical evidence we have for the life of Christ…and extrapolates wildly from that. I’m sorry…but honest scholarship would acknowledge all of the available evidence first….and build from there.

 

1 – Some Great Quotes from the Documentary

I heard some really head scratching statements being made while watching this documentary. I have no intention of pointing the finger here…so I’m only sharing the quotes, not the people who said them. Watch the documentary if you are interested.

 

 

“It is possible that Jesus was sedated on the cross and was removed early, before he died. This is very possible.”

Clearly this person has not studied the well documented ancient Roman practice of flogging and crucifixion. I’ve shared some details below in this blog.

Many people have tried to support the “swoon” theory, of a Jesus who survived his execution. Yet none of these attempts are historically convincing. More explanation below.

 

“The earliest Gospel is Mark…and it has no resurrection appearances at all. The last verses of Mark were added 200 years later.”

This misrepresents Mark’s surviving original text in chapter 16. Jesus’ resurrection is clearly announced by this text, although the women who discover the empty tomb leave it bewildered and frightened.

“When they entered the tomb, they saw a young man clothed in a white robe sitting on the right side. The women were shocked, but the angel said, “Don’t be alarmed. You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth,[b] who was crucified. He isn’t here! He is risen from the dead! Look, this is where they laid his body. Now go and tell his disciples, including Peter, that Jesus is going ahead of you to Galilee. You will see him there, just as he told you before he died.” Mark 16:5-7, NLT

It also conveniently, or mistakenly, misses the fact that the earliest record of Jesus’ resurrection isn’t Mark’s Gospel at all…but 1 Corinthians chapter 15. This creed is dated to within weeks of the crucifixion itself…

I passed on to you what was most important and what had also been passed on to me. Christ died for our sins, just as the Scriptures said. He was buried, and he was raised from the dead on the third day, just as the Scriptures said. He was seen by Peter[c] and then by the Twelve. After that, he was seen by more than 500 of his followers[d] at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he was seen by James and later by all the apostles. 1 Corinthians 15:3-7, NLT

 

“The Gospels are not primarily interested in what actually happened historically…just what Jesus taught.”

Again – I’m wondering if this person cared to check their Bible? Luke the physician used great care to communicate the eyewitness reports of Jesus life.

Many people have set out to write accounts about the events that have been fulfilled among us. They used the eyewitness reports circulating among us from the early disciples.[a] Having carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I also have decided to write a careful account for you, most honorable Theophilus, so you can be certain of the truth of everything you were taught. Luke 1:1-4, NLT

 

“Jesus resurrection was just a picture and an image of hope. It was not literally true.”

What nonsense. If Jesus resurrection did not literally happen, then the message of Christianity is a dangerous delusion that leads people astray. It doesn’t comfort them at all – it misleads them in a cynical and dangerous way.

No – to be a carrier of hope, Jesus Resurrection has to have happened the way the Gospels clearly report that it did…based on eye witness testimony.

 

 

Overall – I’d say the scholarship that this documentary appeals to in making its case…is suspect. As a non-scholar myself…even I can see that! This hurts the documentary’s claims, I think.

 

 

2 – Why the Foundation of the Documentary’s Claims are Suspect

Going back to the claim that Jesus was a Buddhist, this is a great work of fiction…and this claim rests on two assumptions that seem to me to be absurd. If the assumptions aren’t solid…then you can be sure that their resulting conclusions will be unsupportable.

Assumption 1 – Jesus grew up in India between ages 14 and 29. But there is no evidence that Jesus spent any time outside of ancient Israel beyond his brief forays into regions like Samaria, as described in the Gospels.

Assumption 2 – Jesus survived his crucifixion and escaped back to India. But there is no reasonable way that Jesus could have survived his crucifixion.

 

Here are some of my reasons for making both of these statements.

 

First assumption – Jesus wasn’t living in Israel between the ages of 14 and 29.

The only ancient historical basis for this (the earlier the evidence the more credible it is to historians) is that Jesus’ biographies (the Gospels) do not mention anything about his life between those two ages. Someone once observed that – absence of evidence is never evidence of absence. This is sometimes called an appeal to ignorance…and formal logic says it’s a fallacious way of constructing an argument. It asserts a proposition’s true because it hasn’t yet been proven false (or vice versa). But there is another option – that there is insufficient data to prove whether its true or false. That’s what we’ve got in this case and – given Jesus documented peasant status – a more reasonable assumption to make – given the style and agenda of ancient biography – is just that the writers didn’t focus on any event in his life growing up in Israel between 14 and 29. Sure – they claim Jesus went to India – but they are simply inventing the story. So their assumption doesn’t logically follow from the evidence.

 

 

 

Second assumption – Jesus survived the crucifixion.

There was some conspiracy, or agenda to get him off the cross quickly so that he would survive his ordeal and recover. The primitive 1st century people didn’t know the difference between resuscitation and resurrection…and they leapt to a fantastical explanation…rather than go for a naturalistic one.

 

Again – great plot for a novel. I’m always up for a good conspiracy theory…and an episode of the X-Files too. But I don’t think the claim stands up to historical scrutiny and personally I don’t think this is a reasonable conclusion when ALL the available evidence is taken into account. Doctor Alexander Metherell is a Professor of Engineering and Medicine and he has written on the events surrounding Jesus crucifixion from a medical perspective. He is quoted by Lee Strobel’s book, “The Case for Christ”[1].

 

What does he suggest? He says that there is no way that Jesus could have survived his well-documented crucifixion. Look at what Metherell says about the proposition that Jesus survived his crucifixion:

 

“After suffering that horrible abuse, with all the catastrophic blood loss and trauma, he would have looked so pitiful that the disciples would never have hailed him as a victorious conqueror of death; they would have felt sorry for him and tried to nurse him back to health. So its preposterous to think that, if he had appeared to them in that awful state, his followers would have been prompted to start a worldwide movement based on the hope that someday they too would have a resurrection body like his. There’s just no way.” – Metherell

 

Metherell goes on to assert that it is just unreasonable to say that Jesus survived his crucifixion. It’s a fanciful claim. He died on the cross. The evidence that Metherell points to in the Gospel accounts for this:

 

  • Jesus sweat was tinged with blood in the garden beforehand. Hematidrosis, the result of psychological stress. Would make his skin very sensitive.
  • Jesus was flogged before he was crucified. The roman whips were leather thongs with metal balls and sharp pieces of bone woven into them. Ancient historians talk of the victims back…down to the backs of their legs…being shredded by this process of flogging. Often exposing the victim’s spine and his internal organs. Many victims would die there and then from hypovolemic shock. It seems reasonable to assume Jesus was in this state as he staggered thru Jerusalem holding the upright beam of his cross.
  • Romans used 7 inch spikes that were driven thru the wrist (considered back then as part of the hand). It would go in where the median nerve runs. This is so painful that a new word was invented to describe it – excruciating…literally “out of the cross”.
  • His posture would have meant that his shoulders would have been dislocated.
  • As they say in the video…this is death by asphyxiation. To exhale the victim must push himself upwards…tearing the flesh of his feet every time. Until the victim eventually became exhausted…leading to respiratory acidosis.
  • Yes – the Romans would break the legs to speed up death. It talks of them doing this in the gospels because the Sabbath was approaching. Yet Jesus legs weren’t broken. Is that because he got special treatment so he might survive? Not at all. What the documentary conveniently fails to mention is that the Romans stuck a spear in his side to make sure he was dead!!
  • Hypovolemic shock apparently would lead to a fluid build up in the pericardium – so when the spear was thrust in – blood and “water” came out, as the gospels report.
  • Maybe Jesus wasn’t nailed? Well archaeology confirms the first century gospel claims. Nails have been found in the remains of victims buried in Jerusalem with nails in feet bones.
  • Maybe the Romans were just mistaken and Jesus wasn’t dead? Hang on – it was a Roman soldiers job to kill their victim. This was not hard to do – it was a well-documented process – and they risked their heads if they let a prisoner escape. Yes – the documentary points to the part of Josephus where he asks for 3 friends to be removed from their crosses…two die and one survives. But the difference here is – Josephus is a Roman Official – he has the power to make a request of Governor Titus to remove these people from their crosses. In Jesus situation – he had no one in power on his side. The one that could have saved him – Pilate – washed his hands of him. Just because people have been taken off crosses in the past…does not mean Jesus was.
  • Many people have claimed Jesus survived crucifixion over the centuries. The swoon theory is “impossible. It’s a fanciful theory without any possible basis in fact” according to Metherell.

 

 

 

But – assume that by some turn of events – Jesus DID survive his crucifixion? He could not have walked around having had nails ripping thru his feet. And he couldn’t have used his arms because his shoulders were dislocated. Not to mention the gaping spear wound in his chest. Metherell’s interesting quote again…

 

“After suffering that horrible abuse, with all the catastrophic blood loss and trauma, he would have looked so pitiful that the disciples would never have hailed him as a victorious conqueror of death; they would have felt sorry for him and tried to nurse him back to health. So its preposterous to think that, if he had appeared to them in that awful state, his followers would have been prompted to start a worldwide movement based on the hope that someday they too would have a resurrection body like his. There’s just no way.” – Metherell

 

 

Jesus didn’t survive his crucifixion – to claim so is unreasonable when all the evidence is taken into account – the documentary misses out lots of important pieces of evidence when making its case (I’ve only mentioned one or two of them).

 

Here’s another quote from a Doctor.

 

“Clearly the weight of the historical and medical evidence indicates that Jesus was dead before the wound to his side was inflicted… Accordingly, interpretations based on the assumption that Jesus did not die on the cross appear to be at odds with modern medical knowledge.” – Doctor William D Edwards, Journal of the American Medical Association

 

No – personally I think it’s reasonable to go with medical opinion…and assume Jesus was dead when he was lifted from his cross.

 

And if he was dead, then there was no escape to India. And there is no simple naturalistic explanation to the historical evidence of the empty tomb and millions of changed lives down thru the centuries following the birth of the Christian church.

[1] Strobel, Lee, The Case for Christ, Zondervan