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People seem to be talking about internet civility an awful lot at the moment. For example, Dan Fincke at Camels with Hammers has been asking people to sign up to a civility pledge. I have been involved in my own debate with a rather infamous apologist, JP Holding. For those who do not know JP Holding, he is an ex-prison librarian cum self-styled apologist who runs Tektonics.org (Tekton Apologetics Ministries) and Theology Web. He has a Masters Degree in Library Science, which will be important for a later point.

So I was responding to a comment on the comment thread to a review for the book The Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist Crisis to which Apologia Phoenix gave a 5 star. Now, rumours have abounded before that JP Holding (JPH) uses sockpuppets, particularly on Amazon (some claim that Anna B., KC James, Apologia Phoenix, M.Cat are false identities – I don’t know, though Sheila Rangslinger was found to be JPH here – it’s too embarrassing to read, especially when she / he demands a statement of belief about their real names… Also, profiles such as Timestar have been deemed JPH sockpuppets. This link exposes JPH and links some further articles about him). Holding produced a book called “The Impossible Faith” to which Richard Carrier, who had had many dealings with him, was paid by someone to rebut, and who wrote “Not The Impossible Faith” (which is a very good book).

Mudslinging is not fun, and it’s not very fulfilling. So why should I get involved? Well, I get annoyed when I read comments on Theology Web which slag me off even though I have never entered into a conversation with this man, and when he doesn’t even know me from Adam. It is JPH’s attitude which I want to talk about most here, and it is this which gives him his pantomime infamy – he is simply a rude man with an inflated ego. Is this me being rude? Am I justified in saying this? Read any of his comment threads anywhere on the internet and judge for yourselves.

JPH has a habit of being offensive, and he does so across the spectrum of freethinkers from GA Wells to Richard Carrier. He claims that those he speaks to are uneducated idiots and does so with a whole variety of ad hominem attacks. It is quite amazing to watch and read. An then when called out on this in light of the character of Jesus, he claims Jesus had similar wit. But he seems to misunderstand, indeed, what wit is.

JPH seems to have it in for a regular commenter here, John Grove. Now, I wouldn’t step in to defend John just because, unless there was unfair treatment and unsound argument, which there was in spadefuls.

My first comment on the thread started with replying to the rudeness of JPH. What annoyed me is that John had the decency to concede a point. John magnanimously stated:

I don’t have the literature in front of me, but I will be glad to concede I may in fact be totally in error with that. It was a minor point anyway and Price is not the only one to have mentioned the similarities. I find this interesting and I think there may be something to it but my case does not at all depend on it.

This is so rare in internet arguments and debates. To which JPH retorted:

All right, fine. Since you manned up and admitted an error, I’ll let it pass.

This must be seen in the context of the argument and some of the truly inappropriate things said to John during the thread (by JPH’s Theology Web confidantes). Incredibly uncivil (though both sides had said bad things – the difference being that John graciously apologised and took them back). So I piped in and said, in response to talk about miracles:

JPH

A few points, if even you care.

Firstly, your attitude. It’s pretty acerbic (WWJD? Not have your attitude!). Someone has the decency, the humility (didn’t Jesus teach that?) to admit error, to concede a point. This is so rare in the internet age, and so rare given cognitive biases and heuristics such as priority bias, that it should be congratulated and welcomed. After all, correcting oneself is the only way to achieve a reliably accurate epistemology or knowledge base.

“Since you manned up and admitted an error, I’ll let it pass.”

All this says is that John has not been manly (itself dripping with sexism) and that you are arrogant enough to codify what passes and what doesn’t. It’s this sort of attitude which makes arguing on the internet all to often a childish affair. Why couldn’t you just say, “Thanks John, I appreciate you conceding that point”?

Now, I know you guys have a history, but (turning the other cheek) it takes a decent person to step back from arrogant effrontery to start the ball rolling towards civil discussion. I know you can accuse me of ad hom here, but I am merely observing the conversation from afar (and I am not silly enough to claim that John is not complicit in rhetoric).

But on to the more substantive point. Miracles. Rather than point scoring about what Hume did or didn’t say or mean, the crux is, can you defend belief in miracles with warrant and justification. I don’t see anyone claiming they cannot happen a priori. For a start, miracles need to be closely defined. But I think it can safely be assumed that they always take on the least probable explanation of events.

Because, let’s face it, whether you like or not (and theists are the only group of people that seem to want to contest this), extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. This is evident everywhere, and is undeniable.

The hypothesis that a miracle explains events the best must pass a Bayesian probability analysis, like any truth claim. Again, it is fairly obvious (since it is the codification of the aforementioned maxim) that Bayesian probability follows when analysing competing hypotheses or truth claims.

The problem you face is that miracles are incredibly unlikely. Hugely so. The number of events which happen daily is staggering. All around the world. The number of those events that are claimed to be miracles is vanishingly small. Furthermore, virtually every single one is debunked or not believed by most other people. I assume you would not believe the miracle claims of Hindus, Inuits, Muslims, Wiccans and so on. The prior probability of miracles being true is astoundingly small. Not a priori impossible. We are talking non-zero probabilities here.

So how could we justify a belief in one? Well, if I told you I had a cat, you might say “meh, sure” and not demand further evidence for that. If I said I had a dragon which flies to the moon 3 times a week on the back of my wyvern, then you would demand, rightly, a whole mountain of evidence: videos, independent eyewitness testimony, experts, enemy attestation and probably your own eyewitness testimony.

Let’s take the claims of the Bible. In a context of a contemporary surrounding society claiming a relatively large number of miracles these claims have very low priors. We discount all Sumerian, Babylonian, Canaanite, Greek, Chinese and so on, miracle claims. We dismiss them. And yet, employing special pleading, Christians believe biblical ones. But one what grounds? The priors are vanishingly low. So the consequents have to be incredibly high for one to ascribe to the hypothesis of miracles as being the most likely explanation. The standard of evidence? Ex post facto believers who are pro-agenda, unknown writers in unknown times and places with unknown sources. Take Matthew 27. “The tombs were opened, and many bodies of the[aa]saints who had fallen asleep were raised; 53 and coming out of the tombs after His resurrection they entered the holy city and appeared to many. ” That is your evidence for that claim. Right there. In no other area of life would you accept that. If I changed the context for that claim and moved it to a myth about Sargon II, you would reject it out of hand.

So miracles claims have low priors AND low consequents. Amazingly, as soon as the video age has come about, there have been no quality claims. Moreover, every claim seems to be something which could happen naturally anyway (why doesn’t God heal amputees?)…

Someone like Keener comes along and produces a massive book choc full of miracle claims and theists, out of sheer confirmation bias, one assumes, heralds the book. But a mere rudimentary analysis shows that Keener himself has not done rigorous enough checking of his own claims (or claims of others) and analyses alternate hypotheses.

Take his claim on p.326 “One of Tonye’s own patients when he was a junior doctor at the hospital (something like residency here) had such a serious condition that the gynecologist, Dr. Membre, had to perform a bilateral tube ligation, removing the tubes. The woman prayed during Apostle Numbere’s monthly healing meetings there, and three months later Tonye was present when Dr. Membre found her pregnant. Having removed the tubes himself, he could only concede, “Your God is great.” After the child’s birth, a hysterosalpingogram, a sort of X-ray using dyes, confirmed that the woman indeed had two healthy tubes; Tonye witnessed this test himself, and the woman had other children afterward.”

Has he been to Africa to check? Has he actually realised that this happens very often naturalistically (failed ligations, regrowing tubes from poorly carried out operations etc)? Has he interviewed experts in the field? Has he interviewed experts who would give an alternate hypothesis? Does he know anything about such ligation operations and techniques? This evidence is SO POOR I cannot believe he includes it. His miracle hypothesis is SO MUCH less probable than the naturalistic explanation. In order to even get somewhere near being able to have a warranted belief that this was a miracle, he would have to analyse the number of ligations that healed without prayer, those that did, when the prayer took place (does one year after prayer count? 5 years?) and so on. Where is the double blind controlled experimentation?

And yet Christians lap this crud up. They use Keener all the time to support miracles, and his accounts are so spurious and poorly researched (it appears) as to be amazing that intelligent people do lap it up uncritically.

It is simply the case that in every case that I know of, that consequent probabilities do not even remotely approach being high enough to do the job of making the miracles hypothesis the most probable one.

And then one has to take into account unknowns about the claims, and mistaken information. Here is a great example of how epistemologies should work.

Someone make a claim about faster than light neutrinos. The world goes haywire. The claimant challenges people to disprove it, since the claim is wildly improbable. After arduous Popperian style falsification attempts, faulty wiring was found to be the case. The self-correcting epistemological method makes sense. Claiming something from a 2000 year-old book and setting it in stone, and ad hoc rationalising its truth is no way to go about reliably arriving at truth. It is backwards, conclusion-first silliness.

Probabilities were only just beginning to become understood in Hume’s time. It’s about time people realised this.

Of course, Christians ascribe more value to their evidence due to personal revelation such that those pithy lines of Matthew ARE good evidence since God has revealed the Bible to be true etc. But as even William Lane Craig admits, since personal revelation smacks of special pleading (since one discounts all rival religious personal claims as being erroneous), one can only use this to convince oneself, not others. On any objective standing, one must use evidential techniques aside from personal experiential claims.

I was really trying to promote a sensible conversation about miracles which is a fascinating subject and needs to be critically and objectively analysed, rather than throwing in a priori commitments. To which JPH replied:

No, I don’t care, not about what an uncritical, uneducated person like you has to say. All you offer here is a sermon for materialism, with only one argument that amounts to, “Dah. How does he know?”

To wit, examples of why no one should care about a word you say:

>>>Let’s take the claims of the Bible. In a context of a contemporary surrounding society claiming a relatively large number of miracles these claims have very low priors. We discount all Sumerian, Babylonian, Canaanite, Greek, Chinese and so on, miracle claims. We dismiss them.

Spare me your simple-minded characterizations and strawmen. If I dismiss a miracle claim from some other group — I’ll use Mormonism as an example, since I have expertise in it — it is not because of “priors” or “consequents” or “personal revelation” or any of that rot you spout in your prejudicial bigotry. I reject the miracle claims of Mormonism because Joseph Smith has been shown unreliable on hard historical grounds (eg, poor exegesis of the NT, the Book of Abraham being fraudulent).

>>>. It’s pretty acerbic (WWJD? Not have your attitude!).

No S. And check Matthew 23 for a sample of acerbic wit by Jesus, little fellow — assuming you can read. (For a test, see if you can find the place where Jesus used that very insult on the Pharisees, adjusted for the culture.)

>>> Someone has the decency, the humility (didn’t Jesus teach that?) to admit error, to concede a point.

Oops. You missed the backpedal, huh?

Chalk up another fundy atheist in mindless drone mode. 😀

(My emphasis). So we can see the standard of conversation to be had. I replied:

And this is why you have the reputation that you do. You are simply a rude man. Not at all likeable. Uneducated indeed! Uncritical indeed! Have you ever changed any of your worldviews (monumentously) based on critical evaluation?

I was not giving a sermon on materialism at all, and this shows your true colours. It was about probability. It had absolutely nothing to do with ontology of our world, but to do with likelihood of events. that is the whole point of BT analysis – it cuts through that.

“”Dah. How does he know?””

That is, indeed, epistemology. Er, so yes. How DO you know the truth of what you insultingly preach?

” I reject the miracle claims of Mormonism because Joseph Smith has been shown unreliable on hard historical grounds”

Ha ha. This is too funny. this is both (unbeknownst to you, it seems) an analysis of both the priors and the consequents! That is just too funny, it really is. I think this sums up your approach with hilarious aplomb.

“Chalk up another fundy atheist in mindless drone mode”

Is this really an intelligent way to discuss? You fight a serious point with juvenile, playground taunts? And you clearly think so much of yourself. Wow. Does self-aggrandisement not eventually have a hollowness to it?

I am willing to discuss things sensibly here, as I have done with hundreds of Christians on the internet, in debate or in person. But I do not willingly give up my time to deal with rudeness. And if you think that Jesus really would act and say as you do, then you have a sorry excuse for a godmanspirit. You have not used an ounce of wit, either.

wit – “the capacity for inventive thought and quick understanding; keen intelligence” (OED)

1. Chalk up another fundy atheist in mindless drone mode.

2. assuming you can read. For a test, see if you can find the place where Jesus used that very insult

3. I don’t care, not about what an uncritical, uneducated person like you has to say.

If you do not want to continue cordially and with civility, let it be known that you decide not to be cordial or civil in discussion. If you do, then please, continue in a civil and cordial manner.

Thanks.

What I find interesting is that he accuses others of being uneducated without having the required education, and certainly not critical thinking skills, himself. That I have 3 university qualifications and actually teach critical thinking skills, giving public talks on philosophy and biblical historicity makes it all the more ironic. I am not saying he is not qualified to argue, debate and do what he does. Not at all! I think qualifications go so far, and can be very useful. But you can get there without them. I would never argue from authority like that. To accuse someone of being uneducated and uncritical in this way is insanely hypocritical and, well, wrong.

JPH politely responded:

Yeah of course you were giving a sermon. And now you’re trying to evade your mistake, to wit:

>>>Ha ha. This is too funny. this is both (unbeknownst to you, it seems) an analysis of both the priors and the consequents!

Spare me. You didn’t have such things in mind as the specific “priors” or “consequents”. You said:

“We discount all Sumerian, Babylonian, Canaanite, Greek, Chinese and so on, ***miracle claims***. We dismiss them. And yet, employing special pleading, Christians believe biblical ones. But one what grounds? The priors are vanishingly low. So the consequents have to be incredibly high for one to ascribe to the ***hypothesis of miracles*** as being the most likely explanation.”

So don’t give that line of bull. You meant only priors and consequents in terms of miracle claims, not tangential historical matters.

>>>Is this really an intelligent way to discuss

You’re right. It’s much more intelligent to rationalize my mistakes and pretend I’m a victim. 😀

You don’t deserve cordiality or civility any more than a pig in a poke does.

Now, there is no doubt I added rhetorical devices to an extent, and it would have been nice to have made my comments utterly emotion-free, but that is a tall order when someone who pertains to being academic and critical provides no decent argument and throws playground insults at you with wild abandon. He had called me a “scholarly klutz” to someone else on Theology Web without ever having spoken to me (as JPH). You could indeed claim that I am grossly overreacting to JPH here, but it is not about this conversation per er, it is about what it represents, both from JPH on a phenomenal scale, and from thousands of other commenters across the web on every side of the divides. So my reply:

“You don’t deserve cordiality or civility any more than a pig in a poke does.”

From a man who has had virtually no contact with me, unless he really is, as many say, Anna B, KC James or ApologiaPhoenix, then I  suggest your rather childish taunts are somewhat mistaken. I can’t see that anything I have said in this thread deserve that I, as a human being, deserve not to be treated cordiality or civility. Nothing but nonsensical rudeness from you. The very opposite of charity; the very antithesis of the Good Samaritan. I really can’t understand what I have said that deserves such disdain – it only makes sense as a poorly veiled rhetorical device. Paper thin.

“Spare me. You didn’t have such things in mind as the specific “priors” or “consequents”. You said:”

Let’s see, oh yes, that’s precisely what I was talking about. The use of the term ‘miracle claims’ is to emphasise what we are talking about. Miracle claims. I state we dismiss such claims, as we do, as YOU do, based on low priors AND low consequents. That is what we do. Simple. Youi proved this with hilarious clarity in your supposed refutation of my position with regards to Mormonism. It ended up proving my point. If the evidence was amazing, we would conclude differently. If the Saints were actually witnessed by the many claimed; and accounted for by them; corroborated by many attestations; if we had extant testimony; if we had decent damned evidence, we might conclude otherwise. We don’t. That was my point. Let me reiterate what I said:

Let’s take the claims of the Bible. In a context of a contemporary surrounding society claiming a relatively large number of miracles these claims have very low priors. We discount all Sumerian, Babylonian, Canaanite, Greek, Chinese and so on, miracle claims. We dismiss them. And yet, employing special pleading, Christians believe biblical ones. But one what grounds? The priors are vanishingly low. So the consequents have to be incredibly high for one to ascribe to the hypothesis of miracles as being the most likely explanation. The standard of evidence? Ex post facto believers who are pro-agenda, unknown writers in unknown times and places with unknown sources. Take Matthew 27. “The tombs were opened, and many bodies of the[aa]saints who had fallen asleep were raised; 53 and coming out of the tombs after His resurrection they entered the holy city and appeared to many. ” That is your evidence for that claim. Right there. In no other area of life would you accept that. If I changed the context for that claim and moved it to a myth about Sargon II, you would reject it out of hand.

Fairly obvious exposition of Bayesian analysis. You see, “You meant only priors and consequents in terms of miracle claims, not tangential historical matters” is a simple misunderstanding of my point – and you accuse us of straw men, wow. Miracle claims are claims of events that have happened – historical claims. and they are analysed so. I was merely codifying the analysis we do of ALL historical claims, miracles or otherwise.

As for Fogelin, I have no interest in defending Fogelin since I did not make any claims of Hume. I see you have said nothing of Keener.

One rule for you, another for everyone else.

Since you have no interest in being decent and civil, I will bow out of this conversation (loosely termed). I did offer a cordial discussion, you have shown yourself incapable of doing so, which confirms quite a few opinions of you. Can’t say I didn’t try. Good day!

So JPH had summarily ignored any of my points, merely resorting to Danth’s Law and a parade of insults. Nothing of consequence on miracles; nothing on Keener; nothing on BT.

Yeah sure Johnny. More dancing and evading of your mistake with a bloated 500-page bout of verbal diarrhea where you once again (un)skillfully rationalize it so that you were actually talking about something other than what your words actually said. Fer sure. 😀 “Dah. I didn’t mention mundane historical claims or exegesis or anythin’ like dat, but dat sure wuz what I wa talkin’ about! Dah!”

Allow me to respond with one of John’s fave phrases to answer all arguments:

“I don’t care.”

Oh, and you’d better work on the victim complex. It’s not at all believable the way you do it now.

I couldn’t resist:

Er, what mistake?

I have made no mistake and am still awaiting a cogent reply to the fact that miracles, like any other historical truth claim, are answerable to Bayesian probability analysis.

You hilariously denied this by, er, appealing to Bayesian probability analysis. You appealed both to evidence of Smith and probability based on priors to do with unreliability (empirically found in a court of law).

You also failed to answer accusations about Keener who you had been waxing lyrical about.

And then, true to form, you claim Danth’s Law, which always makes me chuckle.

If in doubt, JPH, just defer to ad hominem taunts. That should get you out of any awkward situation (given that you have, as yet, provided nothing of substance). [Cue ad hominem attacks.]

To which he said:

“Since you have no interest in being decent and civil, I will bow out of this conversation (loosely termed). “

Like I said — Johnny has a problem with honesty! 😀

Maybe he’s been snorting too much Loftuscite!

And still no cogent reply. Well done, JPH, you have outdone yourself. Ending with another ad hom, too. And so it goes on.

As Hector Avalos has said before, “Holding is an amateur of the worst type: Too uninformed to know that he is uniformed”. There is certainly, it appears,and I do not mean this as an ad hom, some kind of personality disorder here. Because anyone who has been proven to go on the internet and pretend to be other people, man and woman alike, in order to make themselves sound more important and popular MUST have some kind of psychological issue. This is not an insult, it just simply must be the case. Some of his insults, too, have been staggering – not the sort of thing rational well-adjusted people would make.

And here is the main point – the internet allows people to hide behind anonymity and thousands of miles of geography and act like uncivil barbarians. And that pisses me off a treat. All too often, there are internet conversations which turn into shouting matches because people think that not being face to face with someone gives them the right to speak to them without normal human codes of decency. If someone like JPH said the things he does to the people he does in person, he would probably lose his front teeth!

I think there DOES need to be a concerted effort to raise the awareness of the need to be civil on the internet. I have not read Fincke’s piece. I know that many disagree with it or the way he has gone about it or phrased it. But the general point is this: Treat others on the internet, especially when you haven’t had dealings with them before, how you would treat them if they were in the room and your mother was there, too! Now I know I get frustrated with people like John M here at SIN, but I have conversed with him enough to be a little more flexible with that mantra. and I am in no way innocent – I have been incredibly rhetorical at times (possibly hypocritically so here – let me know if you think so). I am trying to be less and less so with each passing month.

It comes down to epistemology. I think people like JPH have a reversed epistemology which means they are dogmatically opposed to being intellectually flexible. They start with a 2000 year-old inspired apparent truth and then spend their lives searching around for ideas and evidence to support that presupposed conclusion. On the other hand, I prefer to start from the fundamental basics, literally (the existence properties and ontology of abstracta and concrete objects), and work up toward whatever conclusion I am justified in reaching. This is why I have changed my opinion on a more fundamental aspect of life than whether God exists or not – free will. This affects each and everything we do, and actually underscores what sort of God one can argue to. I change my mind on morality, depending on the evidence and persuasiveness of the arguments. I am not committed to a preconceived conclusion. And that is liberating. Perhaps this is the source of the anger and vitriol for people like JPH. If you feel chinks and threats in your arguments, you r worldview armour, then you might feel a possibility that the whole of your life could come crashing down. I am editing a book of deconversion accounts at the moment, and this is a recurring theme for Christians who deconvert. The defence against this is to use any technique that might stave off any possibility of this happening. Anger and vitriol serve as a defence against, as well as an attack on, potential threats.

On the subject of free will, I find it very funny that apologists like JPH spend their lives arguing to toss over Matthew 27, tombs, prophets and resurrections which are all entirely irrelevant if you cannot philosophically and empirically establish free will or doxastic voluntarism (that we can choose to believe things at will) amongst other philosophical issues. Without these, the concept of believing in, and being judged by, a god is entirely incoherent. Unless you are a staunch Calvinist.

With regards to this forum, I do ask that people are civil. But also that people are open to changing their minds, freeing themselves from the shackles of cognitive biases where remotely possible (it is hard to distance oneself from automatically acting biases and heuristics).

We can agree to disagree without calling each other childish names. We are beyond that, not least because we are adults, but also because that gets in the way of a reliable method of obtaining greater knowledge and getting ever closer to a universal sort of truth, if one exists. Let’s be honest, as much with ourselves as with others, and let’s not be afraid to say that we are wrong.

I shouldn’t need to draw up a charter or get people to sign a pledge. Just be sensible, people. As Confucius said (and apparently a few others too) “What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others.”

I love debating stuff. I love finding out more about things which I do not know enough. I love feeling I am getting ever closer to the truth of things. And if you do too, then let’s chat. Let’s argue to toss, by all means, but in the spirit of the Tippling Philosophers – around a virtual round table, like friends with a glass of wine, and with civility and respect. Let’s find out together what makes this universe tick, and whether or not someone designed the clock.

[For more information on JP Holding and his less than civil tactics, check here.]

Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...