Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Yes, viruses are alive. Even computer viruses.

The one where I get to define what Life is...

Definition as distinction with a difference that matters

I try to avoid getting into purely semantic debates that turn on nothing more than subjective preference for one arbitrary definition over another.  It might be thought that the Definition of Life question is one of these semantic arguments, but is it?

I am going to think of a definition as the set of rules governing a category.  It fixes the principles by which things can be judged to either fit the category or not.

For my money, a reasonable definition has at the very least to avoid making a distinction without a difference that matters.  By which I mean, one should not fix a category boundary between two things which are not distinguished for a good reason.

So while definitions are subjective, I am putting constraints on which subjective definitions I allow.  The category of board-games should not turn on whether the candidate activities involve throwing dice.  The definition of beverages should not require that the candidate liquids are transparent.  The distinction made by a definition has to match a difference that matters.

By what principle can one decide whether a proposed distinction distinguishes between things for a good reason, whether it matches a difference that matters?  I think I'll leave that question for now!  Maybe after putting it into practice on the Definition of Life question I will have an idea what the principle is.

Definitions of Life and the Virus

I feel strongly that viruses should be regarded as living organisms.  I think the definitions that exclude them only do so unreasonably by erecting distinctions without differences that matter.

I will proceed by taking a traditional, restrictive definition and show that, for each rule governing the category, either viruses satisfy it or the rule is unreasonable.

The list collated on Wikipedia, which I have re-ordered, includes:
1. Organization: Being structurally composed of one or more cells — the basic units of life.

2. Reproduction: The ability to produce new individual organisms, either asexually from a single parent organism, or sexually from two parent organisms.

3. Adaptation: The ability to change over time in response to the environment. This ability is fundamental to the process of evolution and is determined by the organism's heredity, diet, and external factors.

4. Metabolism: Transformation of energy by converting chemicals and energy into cellular components (anabolism) and decomposing organic matter (catabolism). Living things require energy to maintain internal organization (homeostasis) and to produce the other phenomena associated with life.

5. Homeostasis: Regulation of the internal environment to maintain a constant state; for example, electrolyte concentration or sweating to reduce temperature.

6. Response to stimuli: A response can take many forms, from the contraction of a unicellular organism to external chemicals, to complex reactions involving all the senses of multicellular organisms. A response is often expressed by motion; for example, the leaves of a plant turning toward the sun (phototropism), and chemotaxis.

7. Growth: Maintenance of a higher rate of anabolism than catabolism. A growing organism increases in size in all of its parts, rather than simply accumulating matter.
Let's consider these definitional conditions in turn, whether viruses satisfy them and whether they are reasonable requirements.

1. Organisation: Being structurally composed of one or more cells — the basic units of life.

I would argue that it is unreasonable to require a priori that life be structured by cells.  The definition of life should focus on functional requirements, i.e. requirements about what the candidate thing does.  If a virus can do everything reasonably required of a living organism, but without being a cell, then it would be arbitrary to tag on the rule that it must also be a cell.  This would be like defining the word "home" to require that the object be a house.  But if somebody lives and keeps their possessions on a canal-boat, and thus it satisfies all the functional requirements of being a home, then it would be arbitrary to deny it was their home just because it was not a house.

Note that some scientists theorise that at least some viruses evolved from cellular life:
According to proponents of this hypothesis, autonomous organisms initially developed a symbiotic relationship. Over time, the relationship turned parasitic, as one organism became more and more dependent on the other. As the once free-living parasite became more dependent on the host, it lost previously essential genes. Eventually it was unable to replicate independently, becoming an obligate intracellular parasite, a virus. Analysis of the giant Mimivirus may support this hypothesis. This virus contains a relatively large repertoire of putative genes associated with translation — genes that may be remnants of a previously complete translation system.
(Alternatively, but less preferably, I might argue that a virus is composed of cells, since parts of its reproductive cycle must take place inside a cell.  Thus the virus-in-cell complex would fit the cellular organisation requirement, and we might regard extra-cellular viruses as merely its reproductive expression.)

2. Reproduction: The ability to produce new individual organisms, either asexually from a single parent organism, or sexually from two parent organisms.

Viruses reproduce, generally asexually.  They require a cell to do it, but we just disarmed the cellular organisation requirement.

3. Adaptation: The ability to change over time in response to the environment. This ability is fundamental to the process of evolution and is determined by the organism's heredity, diet, and external factors.

Since they reproduce with mutation and under natural selection, viruses evolve and adapt.

4. Metabolism: Transformation of energy by converting chemicals and energy into cellular components (anabolism) and decomposing organic matter (catabolism). Living things require energy to maintain internal organization (homeostasis) and to produce the other phenomena associated with life.

Viruses are pieces of genetic material that hijack cellular machinery.  This includes hijacking cellular metabolism for the purpose of self-replication.  I already argued that if viruses can do everything required of a living organism without being a cell, then they should not be required to be one.

5. Homeostasis:  Regulation of the internal environment to maintain a constant state; for example, electrolyte concentration or sweating to reduce temperature.

Viruses in their extra-cellular stage have a protective covering called the capsid.  This is "a stable, protective protein shell to protect the genome from lethal chemical and physical agents".  I think it is reasonable to say that the capsid shell forms an internal environment that safely bears the virus' genetic material inside it, i.e. it performs "regulation of the internal environment to maintain a constant state".

I also suppose that viruses during the inter-cellular stage have the power to regulate the conditions inside cells in order to promote their own propagation.  This would naturally arise by natural selection.  Here is an example.

Alternatively, and even though I argue that viruses meet this condition, I might consider removing the homeostasis condition from the definition of life.  Imagine an organism that reproduced and propagated itself wherever its internal and environmental conditions were apt to it, but which was powerless to regulate those conditions.  Would that incapacity really deny it the title of Life?

6. Response to stimuli: A response can take many forms, from the contraction of a unicellular organism to external chemicals, to complex reactions involving all the senses of multicellular organisms. A response is often expressed by motion; for example, the leaves of a plant turning toward the sun (phototropism), and chemotaxis.

Viruses respond to the stimulus of the presence of cells by attaching to them then infecting them.  Also, since viruses regulate the internal conditions of cells, they must necessarily respond to changes in those conditions, i.e. stimuli.  Here are some ways in which viruses affect cells.

7. Growth: Maintenance of a higher rate of anabolism than catabolism. A growing organism increases in size in all of its parts, rather than simply accumulating matter.

It is unreasonable to demand of a living organism that it grow.  What if it happens to spend all its available energy replicating itself instead of growing?  This is a perfectly functional survival strategy.  So I reject this requirement.

To sum up:
  1. It is unreasonable to require that life be cellular, if an entity can perform all the functions reasonably required of a living organism, and yet not be cellular.  Viruses are such entities.
  2. Viruses reproduce.
  3. Viruses adapt.
  4. Viruses use host cells to metabolise.  They have a way to perform the metabolism they need without being cells.
  5. Viruses perform homeostasis, both inside and outside of cells.  I am not sure this is a reasonable requirement anyway.
  6. Viruses respond to stimuli, both inside and outside of cells.
  7. It is unreasonable to require a living organism to grow, when it might just as functionally use all its energy to reproduce itself.
Therefore, viruses appear to be living organisms by a reasonable definition.

That definition requires: reproduction (and thus adaptation), metabolism, and response to stimuli.  Homeostasis is arguable.  Cellular structure and growth are unreasonable demands.

Artificial life

What about computer viruses?  Stephen Hawking has said he thinks they are alive.  Based on my three-rule definition of reproduction, metabolism, response to stimuli, are computer viruses living organisms?

They certainly reproduce.  They are essentially lines of code that copy themselves through wires and sockets onto other items of host media.

Do they metabolise?  Do they transform energy and matter so as to sustain their existence?  Clearly they do.  They are lines of code that program computers to sustain them in existence and copy them.  So what if their matter is made up of binary switch-positions and the energy they use to preserve and replicate themselves is electrical?

Do they respond to stimuli?  Surely some of them do.  Is not installing in response to a click a response to a stimulus?  Is not detection of the insertion of a USB stick a stimulus to which the virus' programmed response is to copy itself onto the new medium?

Computer viruses reproduce, metabolise, and respond to stimuli.  They are artificial living organisms.

My definition of life

In the end, I am not so sure that response to stimuli ought to be a condition of being a living organism.  Imagine an organism that simply performed ad infinitum the same processes, and thereby survived and replicated for a length of time, even without its responding to changes in its environment.  This would not be very adaptive in terms of survival in changing conditions, but who says conditions must change?  Perhaps an organism could survive in deep intergalactic space where the conditions are so stable that response to stimulus is unnecessary.

Therefore I am striking response to stimuli from my definition.

I'm down to reproduction and metabolism.

I have pared down the traditional conditions until I have reached Hawking's definition:
One can define Life to be an ordered system that can sustain itself against the tendency to disorder, and can reproduce itself.
Frankly, I'm not sure about reproduction either.  If we do not require a living organism to grow, why should we require it to reproduce?  What if it simply exerted energy in order to sustain itself in existence?  Why should making copies of itself be a requirement?

If we equate survival with maintaining an existing physical order, and strike reproduction, then we are left with this:
Life is an ordered system that can sustain itself against the tendency to disorder.
This requires the use of energy and matter, i.e. metabolism.

Life is order-sustaining metabolism.

This is the only definition that encompasses the whole of the history of life on Earth, from the first hypothetical self-replicating molecules through to the elephant.

Finally, can we come to a conclusion as to what sorts of differences support reasonable distinctions, so that we can determine which definitions are reasonable in general?  I'm not sure I'm there yet!

Saturday, 20 September 2014

The new, critical, actual history of early Christianity

I showed previously how Eusebius, the ancient "historian" of the early Church, had to resort to legends and left great lacunae in his story of the rise of Christianity, because the Catholic Church lacked any real records or traditions from the First Century.  The New Testament book of Acts of the Apostles and the legends written up by Eusebius combined to produce an entirely legendary picture of the earliest period of the rising religion.

Now let's see how the puzzle-pieces of a new, alternative, critical view of Christianity's first century might fit together.  I think the reality looked something like the following outline.  Some parts of the story are based on direct evidence, in which case I have linked to books and articles, or explained the evidence myself.  Other parts have to be imagined as necessary steps in order for the rest of the story that is in evidence to have taken place.  I have put these essential but only circumstantially supported speculations in italics.


Various Jewish strains of Messiah-belief are apparent in Daniel, Zechariah, Philo, and later sources concerning a heavenly Son of God, Logos, End-Times figure, with the name Jesus attached to some versions.  Some thinking Jews, in the face of repeated failure to overthrow the Roman occupation by force and repeatedly prey to false military messiahs such as those recorded by Josephus, seek a new interpretation of Messianism whereby the sins of the nation will be cleansed and the defeat of their enemies begun.

See Carrier, On the Historicity of Jesus for these pre-existing background ideas, among many other things.

As an example, the Septuagint (ancient Greek) version of Zechariah 6 discusses "Joshua [i.e. "Jesus" in Greek] the son of Jehozadak [= "Yahweh the righteous"], the high priest" who "shall build the temple of Yahweh; and he shall bear the glory, and shall sit and rule on his throne; and he shall be a priest on his throne".  When Philo discusses this passage, he says of this Jesus figure that he is: "an incorporeal being who in no respect differs from the divine image" and goes on to say: "For the Father of the universe has caused him to spring up as the eldest son, whom, in another passage, he calls the firstborn; and he who is thus born, imitating the ways of his father".  Thus Philo, an Alexandrian Jew of the same age as the supposedly historical Jesus, already and independently conceived of a heavenly figure named Jesus, a son of God made in the divine image, who would be a ruler and high priest.  This proves that the heavenly Jesus had been imagined without any reference to any Jesus of Nazareth, and it disproves the common idea that Jesus must have started as a man and been progressively deified.  The actual process was the direct opposite.

Circa 30 (?)

One version of this Jesus-Christ (= "Joshua Messiah") belief coalesces around the "Pillars" Peter, James and John, when they think to decrypt Old Testament prophecies so as to find messages from heaven concerning his descent, crucifixion and resurrection in the heavenly realms.  Their essential faith is that Jesus died a sacrificial death, crucified by evil demons in the lower heavens, in propitiation of the justice of God towards the sins of the nation, thereby substituting his ultimate sacrifice for the Jews' feeble efforts to satisfy God through the Temple cult.

Again, see Carrier's new book or start with his essay outlining his arguments for the Jesus Myth theory, on which I collected introductory readings here.  Also see his presentation on where Jesus came from, here (pdf).  In particular, see the chapter in Carrier's book dealing with the New Testament book called Hebrews, where he shows that this is the theology it preaches: this is probably the original Christianity, Judaism reformed and transformed by the sacrifice of the son of God.

Circa 45-50 (?)

Simon Magus (a.k.a. Simon of Samaria) announces a new understanding of Jesus belief, whereby the old dispensation of the Torah is not divine, but is instead the oppressive creation of intermediary ruling demons who created the Earth and trapped our spirits in material bodies.  His essential faith is that through baptism we participate in the death and resurrection of Jesus, thereby freeing us from death and thus from the power of the legislating demon powers who rule the Earth.  His creed is based on the "Vision of Isaiah".  His movement also produces the original of the Gospel according to Mark as an allegorical expression of their belief and an attack on the Petrine Jewish Christian movement.  GMark is written in the form of a historical fiction as a midrash (a form of scriptual pastiche) on the OT prophecies revered by Christians, especially those from the Psalms, Isaiah, and the later prophets.  Simon writes the originals of the Pauline epistles, including the letter to the Galatians which cautions his flock against listening to the Jewish Christians who want to impose Jewish cultic requirements on them.

See Hermann Detering's The Fabricated Paul (online) and Roger Parvus' ongoing series of articles on "A Simonian Origin for Christianity" for the theory of the identity of Paul and Simon Magus.  See Robert Price's article here or his Incredible Shrinking Son of Man for the scriptural basis of the Gospel stories.

Circa 60-70 (?)

Simon Magus' writings are edited and interpolated by a Proto-Orthodox writer who names him Paul so as to critique Simon and make him appear to promote orthodox belief in the divinity of the Torah.  This Proto-Orthodoxy is a new development, combining the belief of the Jewish Christians in the divinity of the Law with the belief of the Simonians in Christians' freedom from the Law.  Whereas the Simonians held themselves released from the Law imposed by the demonic world-rulers, and their punishment of death, through participation in Jesus' resurrection which nullified the power of the demons over them, the new Proto-Orthodoxy held that Jesus had taken the punishment of the Law on himself, atoning for human sins, and freeing humanity from the Law through substitutionary fulfillment.

Gnosticism thrives as ideas about Jesus and other heavenly emissaries are mixed and matched with all manner of Jewish, Greek and Egyptian esoterica.

See Parvus' articles for the interpolation of orthodoxy into the Pauline epistles.

Circa 80-120

Somehow, whether due to the loss of traditions in post-70 Judea, or to its efficiency as a meme, or to its utility to the Proto-Orthodox in establishing their apostolic bona fides, the surface allegory of GMark is spread as if it were a historical report: the belief arises and proliferates that Jesus of Nazareth was the crucified and resurrected Messiah.

There is no definitive evidence of the replacement of the Heavenly Jesus by the Historical Jesus as the dominant christological belief, although there are suggestive items in both the NT and in the letters attributed to Ignatius where orthodox writers seem to criticise and reject others who deny the reality of the incarnation.  It is arguable however whether it is mythicists or docetists they have in mind.  Consider Trallians 9: "Be ye deaf therefore, when any man speaketh to you apart from Jesus Christ, who was of the race of David, who was the Son of Mary, who was truly born and ate and drank, was truly persecuted under Pontius Pilate, was truly crucified and died in the sight of those in heaven and those on earth and those under the earth; who moreover was truly raised from the dead."  Whether or not this is valid evidence for the thesis, if we accept that the original Jesus was heavenly, and the later Jesus was human, then there must have been a period of change-over, even if the best evidence is lost.

Once the proliferation of the Markan tale occurs, Orthodoxy now comprises a combination of beliefs in a Historical Jesus and in the divinity of the prior Torah dispensation.  There is a great loss of documents from the first-century, not preserved by what came to be the Church with a capital C.  Therefore, despite its claims to apostolic tradition and historical precedence, when Eusebius much later comes to write the history of the early Church he is virtually unable to find any documentary records.  During this period, Matthew is written as a Jewish-Christian revision of GMark, promoting the fulfillment of the Torah, rather than its rejection.  The original of GLuke is also written, based on both GMark and GMatthew.  What became the Catholic Church has no particular importance among the welter of competing Christianities across the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle Eastern worlds at this point.

Also during this period, Marcion emerges as a critic of Proto-Orthodoxy, claiming that Paul's epistles have been systematically Judaised by the followers of the Petrine group of apostles who failed to understand Jesus' radical anti-Law message.  He is the first to collect and publish a book containing both a Gospel and a selection of Pauline letters.  Marcion is not able however to get his hands on copies of the Pauline originals; he uses a version of GLuke different from ours.  Marcion and some Gnostic groups take the Historical Jesus for granted but reject the God of the Jews as a demonic demiurge who created the material world in order to trap spirits in bodies: they thus reject the fleshly incarnation of Jesus and espouse docetism, the belief that Jesus only appeared to have a fleshly body.  (This is a speculation of how docetism arose, fitting it into the general pattern, rather than a process seen in direct evidence.)

See Joseph Tyson's Marcion and Luke-Acts, especially chapter 2 on Marcion, online here.  For the welter of competing Christianities in this early period, see Walter Bauer's Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, online here.

Circa 120-140

In the face of the rise of Marcion's Church, a Proto-Orthodox writer or writers (Polycarp?) interpolates GLuke with anti-Marcionite passages, and composes Acts to turn Marcion's anti-Petrine Paul into Peter's faithful orthodox colleague.  The NT is published, containing Gospels, Acts, the interpolated and forged Paulines, and some new, orthodox Pastoral epistles, along with Revelation.  From this edition onwards, decisions about which writings to include are made on grounds of their orthodox character, rather than their historical authenticity.  The Proto-Orthodox also claim the writings of the Apellean (a branch of Marcionism) celebrity Peregrinus as those of one of their own, Ignatius of Antioch; the original Gospel of John may be Apellean in character.

See Tyson again on the anti-Marcionite editing of GLuke and composition of Acts.  See David Trobisch's The First Edition of the New Testament for the creation of the orthodox New Testament.  For the principles actuating the selection of the canon, see Carrier's summary of the formation of the canon.


Proto-Orthodoxy continues its struggle with Marcionism, whose followers are said to be widespread across the Empire.  With the conversion of Emperor Constantine in 313, the Catholic Church is able to bring coercive force to bear on its rivals, who are now labelled by the Church's heresiologists as heretics who have distorted the original, apostolic doctrine delivered by Jesus to the Twelve Disciples of the Gospels and the Paul of Acts.  In fact, the Catholic Church, having forgotten the original non-historical character of Jesus, and having adopted and manipulated texts produced by its opponents, and having forged others, has no real claim to historical precedence or apostolic tradition.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

The curiously missing history of early Christianity

Something happened to the Christian faith movement in the later first century—something mysterious.

Whatever happened took place between the era of the apostle Paul, circa the 50s and 60s AD, and the era of Ignatius of Antioch, circa 100-110.  If you check out this table, which graphs the use of Christian vocabulary against extant texts ordered by their estimated dates, but excluding the Gospels, then it is evident that the man known as Jesus of Nazareth spread as an idea sometime during that period.

Jesus Christ's only existence in first-century texts outside the Gospels is in general terms such as the "Son of God" who "died" by "crucifixion" and was "resurrected".  Whereas in second-century texts he has been given a historical context and his familiar earthly biography, and we suddenly start reading about specific people, places and activities such as Herod, Mary, Pilate, Nazareth, Jerusalem, exorcisms, healings, miracles, etc..  None of these specific narrative features exist in the Pauline epistles from the earlier period (except for in obviously fraudulent interpolations).

I am convinced that the reason for this has been proven by Richard Carrier in his recent book: the original Jesus was a spiritual being who was believed to have been killed and resurrected in the heavens.  The Gospel according to Mark was written as an allegory of the spiritual beliefs, hopes and experiences of a certain branch of the movement.  Then, probably in the chaos of the Roman war on the Jews, this "in-joke got into the water supply" (to borrow a phrase) and the surface narrative spread as if it were a historical report.  Since then, it has been mistakenly believed that the original gospel, named for Mark, was an attempt at real history.

Since Carrier's book proves its case to my satisfaction, I'm not going to rehearse the arguments here.  What I want to do is point out the oddly missing history of this mysterious period of early Christianity.  I'm more interested here in the history of the institutions than of the ideas.  I will use for this purpose the Church History by Eusebius of Caesarea, written in the first decades of the 4th century as the first complete history of the movement.

The question I ask of Eusebius' Church History is: what does he know of the early history of the movement, beyond what he knows from the texts of the New Testament, the works of the Jewish writer Josephus, and other texts that we have?  In other words, what does the institution of the Church know from its records?  Eusebius should have to hand the records of the Church: lists of officials, accounts of their deeds, maybe their memoirs and letters.

Let's start with the supposed disciples of Jesus.  Beyond the twelves given in the Gospels (in which the lists do not match) Eusebius knows of seventy more from Luke 10:1 (seventy-two in some manuscripts).  What were their names?  According to Eusebius,
there exists no catalogue of the seventy disciples.
Not a good start.  Apparently Barnabas "is said" to be one of them.  So too "they say" Sosthenes was one.  Both names are drawn from Pauline epistles where no mention is made of their being disciples: the word is not used in those texts.  Eusebius says he has a now-lost book called the Hypotyses ("Outlines") by Clement of Alexandria which names Cephas as one of the seventy, "a man who bore the same name as the apostle Peter" whom Eusebius jarringly identifies as the rival of Paul in the Epistle to the Galatians!  A few more names are scraped out of NT texts.  Even this lost book was apparently just an exegesis of passages from the Bible.  Then Eusebius relates a story about one of the seventy that involves Jesus writing a letter to King Abgarus of Edessa, a letter Eusebius has read in his "archives", but which is a patent fake.

That's it for the supposed seventy disciples of Jesus.  Plainly put, the first and foremost historian of the young Church has no record of who they were.  He scrapes a few names together from texts we too have, and appends a gross forgery.  A pathetic haul of evidence, I would say.  Where is the institutional memory of the Church?

I'm not surprised by this first finding, since I expected the seventy to be an invention anyway, like everything specific to Jesus in the Gospels.  So let's move on to Book Two and the early spread of the movement and the establishment of churches.  Eusebius glories in the story of the growth of the Church:

In every city and village, churches were quickly established, filled with multitudes of people like a replenished threshing-floor. ... They renounced with abhorrence every species of demoniacal polytheism, and confessed that there was only one God, the creator of all things, and him they honored with the rites of true piety...
All very well, Eusebius, but get down to the brass tacks of who, and when, and where.  What information have you got?

He knows of the conversion of Cornelius and of a multitude of other Greeks in Antioch: this is from "Acts of the Apostles" in the NT.  This is followed by some information on Jewish history drawn from Josephus and Philo, whose writings we have, and some items from Greek historians.  Then a story from Acts about James being killed (assumed by Eusebius to be James the brother of John, both apostles in the Gospels), spiced with a tale from the aforementioned Clement:
He says that the one who led James to the judgment-seat, when he saw him bearing his testimony, was moved, and confessed that he was himself also a Christian.  They were both therefore, he says, led away together; and on the way he begged James to forgive him. And he, after considering a little, said, "Peace be with thee," and kissed him. And thus they were both beheaded at the same time.
This is the sort of ridiculous legend that seemingly had to pass for Christian history for want of real records.

To continue through Book Two, we get some stories from Josephus, then more from "Acts", then from Justin Martyr.  Then we get an utterly fact-free account of Peter's success at preaching in Rome:
And coming to the city of Rome, by the mighty co-operation of that power which was lying in wait there, he was in a short time so successful in his undertaking that those who dwelt there honored him as a god by the erection of a statue. But this did not last long.
This is pure trash.  It is superfluous really to add that no Roman source mentions anything like it.

What about the lives of early Christian believers?  Eusebius refers to Philo as a source on early Egyptian Christians.  Actually, Philo in his work On the Contemplative Life was not describing Christians at all, but a sect known to him as "therapeutae".

Eusebius records Philo's account of this religious movement.  For example,
[Philo] says: "The whole interval, from morning to evening, is for them a time of exercise. For they read the holy Scriptures, and explain the philosophy of their fathers in an allegorical manner, regarding the written words as symbols of hidden truth which is communicated in obscure figures. They have also writings of ancient men, who were the founders of their sect, and who left many monuments of the allegorical method. These they use as models, and imitate their principles."
These things seem to have been stated by a man who had heard them expounding their sacred writings. But it is highly probable that the works of the ancients, which he says they had, were the Gospels and the writings of the apostles, and probably some expositions of the ancient prophets, such as are contained in the Epistle to the Hebrews, and in many others of Paul's Epistles.
It is plain that Philo could be describing a Jewish sect that is not in any way Christian.  This is entirely likely since he gives no indication of their believing or doing anything distinctively Christian.  Why then does Eusebius resort to the assumption that they were Christians?  Presumably because he did not have access to anything better from within the institution of the Church.

After this, still in Book Two, more Josephus, and more, and more, chapter after chapter.  Then we get to hear about Paul's life after his first trial in Rome, and thus after the end of the story related in "Acts of the Apostles" in the NT.  Unfortunately, there appears to be no real historical source, since Eusebius' whole story is derived from the fraudulent "Second Epistle to Timothy" out of the NT.  Where is the Church's actual record and memory of the career of Paul, aside from what is contained in his authentic and forged epistles?

At last, Eusebius comes to a subject on which he seems to have a credible story: the martyrdom of James, the man called "the brother of the Lord" in Paul's epistle to the Galatians (the meaning of the "brother" phrase is disputed).  The source is a late second-century writer called Hegesippus.  So not a primary source but somebody writing only once the fabrication of legends was already epidemic.  Moreover, the story of James being stoned and beaten to death in Jerusalem lacks any real corroboration in secular sources.  Eusebius (and many modern historians with him) imagines that Josephus corroborates it, but Richard Carrier has shown that the original passage could not have referred to James or Jesus the Christians at all, but rather to another Jacob and Joshua altogether, to give them their equivalent Hebrew names.  So the martyrdom tale of James may well be legendary anyway.  It is difficult to credit that James, a born brother of Jesus, existed as a major figure in the early Church, since he plays no role in any of the Gospels (quite aside from Jesus being a fictive character!)  There is no solid ground of evidence to be had here.

Moving on, let's see what Eusebius knows about the first bishops, the original institutional leaders of the Church:
When Nero was in the eighth year of his reign, Annianus succeeded Mark the evangelist in the administration of the parish of Alexandria.
And... that's it for Annianus.  No personality or deeds, apparently.

What about the line of bishops at Rome?  Let's see:
After the martyrdom of Paul and of Peter, Linus was the first to obtain the episcopate of the church at Rome. Paul mentions him, when writing to Timothy from Rome, in the salutation at the end of the epistle.
And... that's it for Linus!

What did Simeon do as bishop of Jerusalem?  Apparently nothing—except to get crucified at the age of 120!  What of Linus' successor Anencletus in Rome?  Apparently nothing!  Abilius, successor to Annianus in Alexandria?  Evarestus?  Justus?  You can guess.  I am not making this up: there is nothing recorded by Eusebius of anything more that these early Church leaders were or did.  The lists go up to Ignatius of Antioch, and I am already highly suspicious about his stories, derived from his letters, since those letters appear to be misattributed to him.  Then the lists go on and on once more.  Eusebius is at least sometimes honest enough to admit ignorance:
The chronology of the bishops of Jerusalem I have nowhere found preserved in writing.
 What about Peter and Paul, and their supposed martyrdoms at Rome?  Eusebius says this "is substantiated by the fact that their names are preserved in the cemeteries of that place even to the present day".  Not much by way of evidence.  Nothing else besides a few brief mentions by Christian writers.  Tertullian told his Roman readers, "Examine your records", to find the evidence, but gave no indication what evidence was to be found where.  That, apparently, is it.  Where on Earth is the Church's history of the martyrdom of its greatest apostles?

What about the regions where the apostles preached beyond the Holy Land?  Let's see:
Parthia, according to tradition, was allotted to Thomas as his field of labor, Scythia to Andrew, and Asia to John, who, after he had lived some time there, died at Ephesus. Peter appears to have preached in Pontus, Galatia, Bithynia, Cappadocia, and Asia to the Jews of the dispersion. And at last, having come to Rome, he was crucified head-downwards; for he had requested that he might suffer in this way. What do we need to say concerning Paul, who preached the Gospel of Christ from Jerusalem to Illyricum, and afterwards suffered martyrdom in Rome under Nero? These facts are related by Origen in the third volume of his Commentary on Genesis.
So there is some tradition assigning place-names to some apostles.  Naturally, these connections could be claimed by regional churches in order to enhance their authority, and are not much good without more solid details and corroborating evidence.  Peter "appears to have preached" in various parts of Turkey, parts which are all named in the "First Epistle of Peter" in the NT.  Nowhere else?  Did the Church of Eusebius' day know no more of Peter's preaching tours than what it could glean from the text of one letter?  The reference to Paul in Illyricum comes from Romans 15:19.  Where did Origen get his supposed facts?  We do not get a chance to judge any primary sources.

This could go on and on, but I think I have done enough to show that, judging by the Church's foremost historian, there is effectively no real history of the Church.  There are New Testament texts that we still have, there were writers sharing various stories, there were irrelevant and abused references from non-Christian historiansbut essentially no available primary sources such as one would expect of an institution: no lists of holders of important posts, no records of their deeds, no memoirs.  Essentially nothing of primary historical value for telling the history of the Church in the decades after the supposed foundation of the Christian movement.  Names and places were scraped out of the New Testament rather than discovered in institutional records.  This might be partly alright if we could at least trust the "Acts of the Apostles" about the apostolic period, but they are a fraud, created by the Catholic Church to rewrite history so as to make Paul a loyal follower of Jesus' disciples.

The question is, then, why did the early Church not preserve its institutional history?  Could it be because the Church of Eusebius was not the same movement as the early Church?  Because the Catholic Church, believing in a human Jesus the son of the God of the Jews was a late invention, whereas the original Christian movement believed in a spiritual Jesus sent to save mankind from the God of the Jews?  (On which difference see my previous post on the Historical Paul.)  What if the orthodox Church had no real history of the later first century to relate, and was forced to desperately scrape something together from scraps, simply because it did not exist as such in that period, but rather emerged as an organisation much later than it claimed?

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Pistorius: witness evidence as to the charge of premeditated murder

It seems to me that the key issue in determining whether Oscar Pistorius should have been found guilty of premeditated murder is the interpretation of the witness evidence with regard to whether he and Reeva Steenkamp were arguing shortly before shots were fired.  I will give Pistorius the benefit of reasonable doubt in his favour in interpreting this "ear-witness" evidence, since that is what he is entitled to in law.  Clearly his actions in shooting into the bathroom without checking whether Steenkamp was in the bed make for bizarre conduct even on his own story.  It seems unlikely on the face of it, but let us check whether there is witness evidence to confirm the improbability of Pistorius' story or not.

Several witnesses testified about what they heard on the night of the tragic killing:
Michelle Burger.  She was living in the next housing estate from that of Pistorius, 177m away from his home.  According to Sky News' reporting, she was woken by "a terrible female scream" then heard "yells for help".  "She then heard a male voice calling for help three times."  She then "sat on her bed and heard further more intense screams" then "four gunshots".  She said: "After the shouts I heard screams. During the shots I heard her screaming and then it faded away. I did not note what shots, what screams I heard. Just a moment after the shots I heard the lady's screaming fade away."  She was asked: "If you say you heard a voice after the shots, what does it mean?"  To which she replied: "It means the voice that I awoke to [was the same person's voice]. She could have screamed with the last shot or shortly afterwards. I confirm that just after the last shot I heard her voice."  That is, "what I can say is that I heard the same woman's voice screaming as what woke me up that night."  She explained: "I heard a voice calling for help, I then heard a male voice screaming three times. I then made a call after that I heard her screaming. I then heard four shots. I did not hear her a minute after the last shot."  She claimed: "I am 100% certain that I heard a female and a male voice screaming."
Analysis: Burger says she heard a male voice calling for help before she heard gunshots.  If this is accurate, then it supports Pistorius' defence and contradicts the prosecution.  Pistorius' lawyer Barry Roux pointed out to Burger that Pistorius would not likely have called for help before deliberately murdering Steenkamp.  However, Burger also says that she was awoken by a female scream, which would suggest Steenkamp made that noise, perhaps during an argument with Pistorius, and either way he would have known where she was.  That supports the prosecution and contradicts the defence.  However, here is what the judge had to say on that point:
Casting doubt on witness accounts of hearing a woman's screams, Masipa said "none of the witnesses had ever heard the accused cry or scream, let alone when he was anxious," apparently acknowledging the defence argument that Pistorius had been screaming in a high-pitched voice.  Masipa also cited testimony of an acoustics expert called by the defence, saying it cast "serious doubt" on whether witnesses who were hundreds of metres away in their homes — as some state witnesses were — could have differentiated between the screams of a man or a woman.
If we accept the judge's scepticism as reasonable, then what remains of Burger's testimony favours the defence narrative that Pistorius fired into the door without imagining Steenkamp was inside the bathroom.
Estelle Van Der Merwe.  She was living in the same Silver Woods estate as Pistorius.  The reports record her saying: "I woke up around 1:56 in the morning. I heard sounds like someone was talking in loud voices. It lasted for about an hour. I couldn't hear what the person was saying. I also couldn't hear what language this person was speaking."  She says this was "the womans' voice".  She then heard four sounds like "bang, bang" then "no more voices".  Roux, for the defence, told her: "We did a test of a woman and a man screaming very loud in a bedroom at 2 - 3 in the morning. What's interesting, is that you could not have heard the screaming."
Analysis: clearly, if Van Der Merwe heard an hour of Pistorius and Steenkamp talking loudly leading up to the gunshots, then this supports the prosecution.
Charl Johnson, husband of Van Der Merve.  He said he "woke up after the first screams, when I heard the lady scream again I jumped up".  And: "I could hear she was in distressed and in trouble. I can't say exactly, at one point I heard her screaming help. Then at a stage I heard a male voice that shouted three times help, help, help."  Then, "the screaming was more intense.  I heard the first gunshot. During the shots I heard her screaming. The screams faded during the last shot."  He justified his discrimination of the female voice: "I am convinced that I heard a lady screaming. It was easy for me to distinguish because I heard a lady and a mans' voice."  He was also adamant that he heard gunshots, not the sound of Pistorius breaking the door in with a cricket bat: "I am certain it was gunshots."
Analysis: this was evidence flatly favourable to the prosecution: he ascribed screams for help to the female voice, in contrast to Michelle Burger.
Johan Stander, also of Silver Woods estates.  He said he "woke up to three loud bangs, that sounded like gunshots".  Then he heard "the woman screaming" then "more shooting".  After that, he heard "a man's voice screaming three times, HELP, HELP, HELP".
Analysis: this is curious.  Stander reports: gunshots, then screaming, then gunshots, then Pistorius calling for help. If the first series of gunshots killed Steenkamp, as we must suppose, since nobody is accusing Pistorius of firing two volleys separate in time, then this may be evidence that the sound of Pistorius screaming could be misheard as a female voice, and that the sound of the cricket bat striking the door could in fact be misheard as gunshots.  By contrast, the prosecution argued that, of the two sets of shots, only the second set were gunshots.  In that case, what were the first gunshots supposed to be?
The sound of female screaming after gunshots was also reported by Anette Stipp later in the trial.  "Stipp said she was on the balcony listening to the continuous female screams when she heard a man screaming at the same time. She couldn’t make out the words. Then she heard three more sounds like shots ... After the second group of shots, the screaming stopped."  "Anette Stipp told the court she heard two sets of three gunshots, however the prosecution and defense agree only four shots were fired. Throughout the trial, Pistorius' legal team has contended that a second set of bangs was Pistorius bashing down the toilet door with a cricket bat to get to Steenkamp."
Analysis: again, if the first gunshots killed Reeva, then the continuous female screams heard afterwards must have been Pistorius himself, and the second series of shots may have been the cricket bat against the door.  The defence's claims about Pistorius screaming so as to be misheard as a female voice, and the resemblance of the cricket bat's sound to gunshots seem to be confirmed.
Johan Stipp lived 72 metres from Pistorius.  He also described hearing female screaming after being woken by a sound of gunshots: "She sounded fearful. Of someone who was in fear of his or her life ... She sounded to be emotional, anguished, scared almost scared out of her mind, I would say."  He "heard the sound of a woman screaming and a male's voice".
Analysis: once again, who can be the female voice after the gunshots that woke Stipp up?
While trying to phone Silver Woods’s security back in his bedroom, [Stipp] heard three more bangs, which he thought were also shots and shouted for his wife to get to safety.
Analysis: and again, he heard bangs which sounded like gunshots, but which could not have been if the first series of sounds were indeed gunshots.  Once again, it sounds like the order of sounds heard was: gunshots, screams that sounded female mixed with a male voice, and more sounds like gunshots.  Since there is no explanation for the first sounds if they were not gunshots, and the gunshots fired killed Steenkamp, then it follows that Pistorius was making the screams and that his cricket bat on the door sounded like gunshots.  You can listen to the sounds of a gun and a cricket bat against a door here and decide for yourself whether they might be conflated.

Thus, the evidence of Stander, Johan Stipp, and Anette Stipp, that they heard gunshots, then female screaming (mixed with a male voice according to the Stipps), then more gunshots, suggests to me that they might have misheard what were in fact gunshots, then Pistorius screaming, then his cricket bat against the door.  The logic is that there is no explanation for what the first sounds like gunshots were, if they were not the gunshots that killed Steenkamp.

Burger and Johnson, further away, were woken by the sounds of a female scream and a male calling for help, then gunshots.  In light of the evidence of Stander and the Stipps, is it not plausible that Burger and Johnson actually heard the sounds of Pistorius screaming, then his cricket bat, in spite of Johnson's adamant denial of that possibility?  Is it plausible that Burger and Johnson would be woken up by screaming but not by previous gunshots?

On the other hand, Van Der Merwe heard loud talking for an hour before gunshots.  She was the only witness who reported being awake to hear this long period of sounds prior to the others being woken.

In sum, based on my reading of these witness statements, I think there is reasonable doubt to suggest that the screams that were heard before the second series of sounds like gunshots were in fact produced by Pistorius, and that those second sounds were made by his cricket bat.  Stander and the Stipps seem to confirm the possibility of mishearing, on the logic that the first gunshot sounds were the shots that killed Steenkamp.  Otherwise, what were those first sounds?  Has any suggestion been made?

Therefore, the general trend of the evidence of the majority of "ear-witnesses" does not seem to me at the moment to support the case that Pistorius shot Steenkamp after she screamed.  Certainly not beyond a reasonable doubt.  Only Van Der Merwe's evidence contradicts this, since she can hardly have heard the cricket bat but not gunshots.  Her testimony seems to me to be a bad fit with that of the others.

If we go with the apparent import of the testimony of the majority of the witnesses, then they did not provide evidence to support the charge of premeditated murder.  Only Van Der Merwe's evidence does so, if she was indeed hearing Pistorius and Steenkamp: the defence claimed tests showed she could not in fact have heard them.

According to my inexpert and limited analysis of the witness evidence, therefore, it would seem there is reasonable doubt on the premeditated murder charge.  Although Pistorius' actions seem bizarre, are they so bizarre as to justify a premeditated murder conviction without supporting witness evidence?  Is there other relevant evidence to consider concerning this most serious charge?  I am always willing to change my mind based on more evidence or better interpretation.  I am less willing to let evidence as to a suspect's character or general demeanour determine my mind about what he might have done on a given occasion.  Moreover, my provisional conclusion that there is reasonable doubt as to Pistorius' guilt on the most serious charge is not the same as having evidence of his innocence of that charge.

Was the judge right to let Pistorius off the lesser spur-of-the-moment murder charge because he would not have foreseen killing whoever was behind the door?  I don't know; it seems a strange conclusion.  I expect Pistorius to be found guilty of manslaughter (culpable homicide) tomorrow, and either this result or the lesser murder charge seem to be more in line with what can be deduced from the witnesses' evidence without drawing more serious but dubious conclusions.

Finally, let's just plug in some numbers to derive a Bayesian probability of Pistorius having shot Steenkamp after she was screaming, and thus being guilty of premeditated murder.  (I explained and used Bayes' Theorem previously.)  The prior probability of guilt based on the inherent improbability of Pistorius' story I shall call 90%.  The probability of the witness evidence being what it is on the hypothesis of innocence of the most serious charge I would call 100%, since I disregard as mistaken the witness reports of hearing female screams after the first gunshots.  Van Der Merwe I don't find reliable enough to count.  And on the hypothesis of guilt, I call the probability of the witness evidence 90%, to allow for the thought that if the couple were arguing so badly as to put Pistorius in a murderous state of mind then we might expect such an argument to have woken more and nearer neighbours before shots were fired.  Plugging these numbers into the Bayesian calculator, we get: 89%.  In other words, given the almost indifferent import of the witness evidence, one's judgement of the likelihood of guilt depends almost entirely on how (im)plausible one finds Pistorius' story, and I find it pretty implausible.  If it is sufficiently inherently unlikely that Pistorius would shoot an intruder in the bathroom without checking that it was not Steenkamp in there, then that alone makes him highly likely to be guilty.  But could we justly convict him based on the bizarreness of his story alone?

Monday, 8 September 2014

How many extra-terrestrial civilisations are there in our galaxy? Review of "Where is Everybody?"

The Milky Way galaxy apparently contains something like 2-400 billion stars and 100 billion planets.  Plenty of chances to play out somewhere vaguely nearby the evolution of intelligent life that we know played out at least once, on Earth, right?  That's what I had assumed.

100 billion planets sounds like a lot, but if the probability of intelligent life evolving is very small, then it might not be enough planets to make likely the existence of another technological civilisation even in our vast galactic neighbourhood.

The take-away message of this extremely interesting book is that there are a lot of things that have to go right for intelligent life to emerge, and while no one factor is enough to rule out the hope of finding an interstellar interlocutor, when all the factors are multiplied together intelligent life might be so unlikely as to render us almost certainly alone.

The author discusses other solutions to the Fermi Paradox, classed as "They are here"which is not in evidence, so I'll pass over themand "They exist but have not communicated"potentially feasible, it seems to me, especially if super-high-tech interstellar civilisations communicate in ways we cannot detect, or even if they prefer simulated life to the real universe.  But it is the final set of solutions, "They do not exist", which is the most problematic and, for me, potentially saddening.

Among the conditions which Webb discusses, and which the course of cosmology, geology, chemistry and biology may be required to satisfy in order to produce intelligent life, are:
  • a G-type star like the Sun;
  • outside the centre of a galaxy for the avoidance of a concentration of lethal stellar radiation events;
  • a galaxy and solar system with enough heavy elements to construct planets and biomolecules;
  • a rocky planet or moon (or two!) within a continuously habitable zone, meaning a liveable orbit during billions of years of evolution;
  • having tectonic activity for the regulation of carbon dioxide levels and therefore temperature;
  • having experienced a collision with a smaller planet so as to give it a moon of the right mass to stabilise its axial tilt;
  • and possessing an ozone layer to protect against ultraviolet radiation;
  • the formation of water-bearing asteroids;
  • which are driven out of orbit by the gravity of a well-placed gas-giant so as to smash into a planet in the habitable zone and thus hydrate it;
  • the abiogenetic emergence of self-replicating, protein-encoding genes;
  • the emergence of cells;
  • endosymbiotic events to endow single cells with organelles and nuclei, thus producing eukaryotes;
  • the avoidance of overly catastrophic mass-extinction events (from asteroid impacts to climate change to super-volcanic eruptions);
  • an oxygenation event;
  • a Cambrian-like explosion of multi-cellular life;
  • the evolution of sufficient technical intelligence to create a radio transmitter;
  • without such a civilisation destroying itself by nuclear weapons or climate change.
Now, how probable is the co-existence of all those factors, or even most of them—bigger than 1 in 100 billion?  Webb's back-of-the-envelope calculation ends up with just 1 intelligent civilisation, our own.

Let's run some numbers of our own, then, however inexpertly (which is very inexpertly);
  • 1.2% of stars that host habitable planets makes 1.2 billion interesting stars in the Milky Way, averaging 1 habitable planet each;
  • since only Earth of the rocky planets in the Solar System has plate tectonics, let's imagine a 25% probability for a given habitable planet, accepting for sake of argument that plate tectonics are necessary for bringing carbon dioxide and thus temperature to equilibrium, making 300 million interesting planets;
  • a large moon might not be needed for axial stability, so let's ignore that;
  • let's give all the remaining planets water, oxygen and ozone;
  • since all life on Earth has a common ancestor, we may have to rate abiogenesis unlikely, although on the other hand life emerged fairly quickly in Earth's history, after only 1 billion years of its likely 12 billion-year existence until the Sun engulfs it, and scientists have recently found lifelike metabolism of chemicals occuring naturally, so let's go for 50%, leaving 150 million life-bearing planets;
  • let's assume cells are a fairly easy evolutionary improvement once metabolic replicators exist;
  • endosymbiosis has provided eukaryotic cell lineages with organelles several times, so let's rate the probability of eukaryogenesis at 50%, leaving 75 million planets with eukaryotic cells;
  • let's allow catastrophes to destroy life on half the planets that have it, leaving 37.5 million eukaryotic ecologies;
  • let's allow life to oxygenate the planet on its own;
  • let's give the probability of eukaryotic life leading to a species with the technical intelligence to build a radio transmitter as a challenging 1 in 10 million, leaving 3 or 4 advanced extra-terrestrial civilisations to exist at some point in our galaxy.
My numbers are totally inexpert, but some are probably over-rated and other under-rated.  Looking at them, I am probably being too optimistic.  Maybe, though, we find ourselves in the realm of realistic possibility.  Extra-terrestrial civilisations, if they are few, might have lived and died billions of years ago.  They might survive, or at least their artificial intelligences might.  Maybe we are alone.  Maybe even if we are not, we may never hear from our galactic comrades.  But maybe, one day, we will receive a signal directed at Earth by an alien SETI project that realised, maybe thousands of years ago, that we are on a habitable planet.

After reading this book, I will struggle to believe any more that the vast number of stars makes it likely, but I'm not so sure that it's totally implausible.  Then there's the whole rest of the universe with its maybe 200 billion galaxies, where surely, surely, the vast numbers add up to many civilisations we will never know.