Monday, 19 November 2012

AronRa's credibility

It appears that the request for AronRa to provide a citation for a quote he used has caused him to feel very insecure. In his reply to me on his 'Free Thought Bog' (or 'blog' - don't laugh - they mean well by the title) he begins by stating how willing he is to admit when he has made a mistake. He then writes:

" seems my credibility is under attack by some YouTuber who actually thinks he has something worth crowing about.  In the comments on his channel, I see allegations that I am a definitely dishonest coward, deliberately lying in order to further my ‘agenda’."
  I'm not sure how being asked to provide a citation is an attack on his credibility as such. Whilst implying that he might be a coward I have not actually said that he was "deliberately lying". At no point in my previous blog post did I do such a thing and neither did I do so on my YT video. Curious that he would immediately go on the defensive to such a degree.

Still, it might be AronRa's penchant for second-hand sources which led him to such a conclusion since he then admits:

"I haven’t actually seen either of the videos this guy has made about me."
Fortunately he then found my blog and appears to suggest he read my response here.

He then says some very odd things about who has the burden of proof when quoting people. He says:

"So I am accused of misrepresenting Luther, as if he didn’t really say that unless I can prove that he did.  Funny how the burden of proof shifts depending on whether one is arguing for faith vs any other topic."
Sorry to have to be the one to break it to AronRa but this is how genuine scholarship works. If you claim a quotation was made by someone you bear the burden of proof to demonstrate they actually said it. Even if a quote is in keeping with what the author said elsewhere one must be able to provide a citation. Even when the quote is found in secondary sources it's authenticity would still be dubious. So it is good practice to make your citations and make them clearly for all to check. What is the alternative? Taking AronRa's word for it? Is that what he would prefer?

He then cites some passages in Luther which he appears to think establish the same idea as the dubious quotation. Unfortunately they do no such thing! The dubious quote has Luther sounding like he thought there was no natural element to illness and that all physicians are useless. None of the citations AronRa makes from credible sources say those things. Instead what they do say is that Luther thought there was a spiritual element to illness which can sometimes be quite direct and even when it is not it is ultimately behind the phenomena of illness. These genuine quotes also point to the fact that Luther was quite torn on the issue of medical treatment. He bestows great praise on doctors whilst also sounding extremely cautious about some of their practices (which I will note in a moment was a pretty sensible position to take given the century he lived in).

AronRa then goes on to demonstrate he did not read the quotes I gave from Luther fairly. He says:

"In the same paragraph my antagonist cited, Luther criticized medical science as ‘fanciful theories’ in which he has no faith; because he noted that different healers gave different prescriptions for the same maladies."
Does AronRa know what 'medical science' was claiming at the beginning of the 16th century?

Many historians of medical science have documented how it was common for doctors, in Luther's time, to not even touch an ill patient in diagnosis. They were also reliant on ancient Greek wisdom for their techniques (which is one thing Luther wonders about). Medicine was dependent upon the wisdom of Galen and Avicenna the Persian from his work 'The Canon of Medicine'. People frequently died at the hands of physicians who practiced anesthesia by striking the skull with a wooden hammer! Perhaps AronRa is upset that Luther was not more impressed by blood-letting? The phrase 'medical science' is anachronistic to the early 16th century and yet AronRa appears completely unaware of this. He also appears completely oblivious to the Christian doctors of the 16th century who helped to change things for the better. [Which could be an idea for another blog in the future I think.]

AronRa says:

"He said medicine could be replaced with a good diet and an early bed time, and he said that graveyards are filled with those who followed their doctors’ advice."
  Well that is because the graveyards were full of people who went to the 16th century doctor or took their advice!! Also Luther did not say that medicine could be replaced with a good diet and plenty of sleep but rather Luther noted, from his own experience, that this advice had served him well in both avoiding and recovering from an illness. This advice remains quite sound to this day.

AronRa fails to even engage with, or acknowledge the existence of, quotes which upset his narrow reading of Luther. Passages such as:

"I do not deny that medicine is a gift of God, nor do I refuse to acknowledge science in the skill of many physicians."
"Able, cautious, and experienced physicians, are gifts of God."
are simply ignored by him.

He then finishes his overly defensive blog by then returning to the made up accusation of lying. All in all an even more disappointing response than I could have imagined he were possible of. Even now I don't accuse him of being a liar. I would prefer to suggest that he's too ignorant of theology to be a liar. 

Saturday, 17 November 2012

AronRa is no Luther Scholar!

Well for those of you who don’t know the person described by ‘The Thinking Atheist’ as “one of the internet’s most influential atheists” has uploaded a video of him doing another lecture. Yes. It’s AronRa and the video is called ‘The Failures of Creationism’. Now since I’m not a creationist myself I don’t have a problem with a great deal of the video because I think the theory of evolution is a good solid scientific theory and, like most Christians at the end of the 19th century in England, and indeed Darwin himself, I don’t think it contradicts anything in Christian doctrine one little bit.
I am, however, going to have to take AronRa up on his use, or perhaps I should say abuse, of the German reformer Martin Luther. This is not the first time I’ve had to correct AronRa on Martin Luther by the way. See this video for the last occasion I had to so. 

This is AronRa’s supposed methodology for truth claims:

“But if you’re going to tell me to believe it you’re going to have to substantiate it.” 

I don’t have any serious problem with that as a methodology. It’s sounds a little too evidentialist for my liking but I can work with it! 

Now in this recent video he uploaded he claims that Martin Luther said these words:

“Idiots, the lame, the blind, the dumb, are men in whom the devils have established themselves: and all the physicians who heal these infirmities, as though they proceeded from natural causes, are ignorant blockheads...”

You will, of course, notice that AronRa has provided no citation for his quote. This should immediately look curious to anyone who is a critical thinker.  Now I’m no Luther scholar myself and have only read about ten of his major works so I did the only thing any reasonable person would do. As soon as I saw the video I went to his channel and asked him to provide a source for the quote.  AronRa is still to reply to that request as of posting this video.

So instead of relying on AronRa I decided to do my own research. Fortunately Tekton had already done some searching on this and found what appears to be the key source on the internet which comes from someone called Don Morgan on the site ‘Positive Atheism's Big Scary List of Martin Luther Quotations’! The funny thing is that Don himself admits:

“Note: I am often asked for source citations for these quotes. Most of them come from "Luther's Table Talk" or from one of the several Luther biographies. Unfortunately, when I collected these quotes, I did so only for my own amusement and I didn't keep track of the exact citations.”
- Don Morgan

Now that is not a terribly encouraging start. It might be a coincidence that AronRa used exactly the same picture of Luther found on Morgan’s page or that might indicate this is where he got his quotation from. Not a hugely important matter either way but it could be where AronRa got his quote from. It would certainly help explain why he has no reference to Luther directly because Morgan lacks one too. 

Next I checked a search engine in an online version of Luther’s book ‘Table Talk’ and this brought up so such quotation. It’s at this point I’m definitely beginning to doubt the authenticity of the quote.
Now, as I said, I’m no Luther scholar but having read some of his books I don’t recall ever getting the impression Luther thought the way this quote suggests since I recalled passages where he talking about taking medicine himself. So I decided to look up some quotations from Luther that can be sourced. 

Reading through Luther’s book ‘Table Talk’ you can see some passages where the inconsiderate reader might have picked up this impression. For example, Luther says:

"I maintain that Satan produces all the maladies which afflict mankind, for he is the prince of death. St Peter speaks of Christ as healing all that are oppressed of the devil. He not only cured those who were possessed, but he restored sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, speech to the dumb, strength to the paralytic; therefore I think all grave infirmities are blows and strokes of the devil, which he employs as an assassin uses the sword or other weapon. So God employs natural means to maintain the health and life of man, such as sleep, meat, drink, etc. The devil has other means of injury; he poisons the air, etc.

A physician repairs the work of God when damaged corporally; we, divines, spiritually; we mend the soul that the devil has spoiled. The devil gives poison to kill men; a physician gives theriacum, or some other drug, to save them; so the creature, through creatures, helping creatures. Physic has not its descent and origin out of books; God revealed it; or, as Syrach says: 'It cometh from the Most Highest; the Lord hath created medicines out of the earth.' Therefore we may justly use corporal physic, as God's creature. Our burgomaster here at Wittenberg lately asked me, if it were against God's will to use physic? for, said he, Doctor Carlstad has preached, that whoso falls sick, shall use no physic, but commit his case to God, praying that His will be done. I asked him: Did he eat when he was hungry? He answered, yes. Then, said I, even so you may use physic, which is God's creature, as well as meat and drink, or whatever else we use for the preservation of life."

--Martin Luther, _Table Talk_ DXCVII, in _The Table Talk of Martin Luther_, trans. William Hazlitt (London: George Bell, 1875), 256-57.

Now notice how easily this could be misread. If one stops in the first sentence it looks like Luther is saying that all illness is directly of the devil. Here we have mention of the blind, deaf and dumb as in Morgan’s supposed quote as well. But the ending of the paragraph suggests the devil is not doing it directly but, as Luther puts it, “as an assassin uses the sword” – this means he is behind such illness but indirectly. This Luther makes even more clear in the next part where he declares that the physician repairs the physical problem which makes it quite clear Luther thinks physicians can help with illnesses. This is made even more explicit in another quotation taken from his work where he says:

“Generally speaking, therefore, I think that all dangerous diseases are blows of the devil. For this, however, he employs the instruments of nature."
(LW 54: 53, No. 360).
LW = Luther's Works [55 volume English Translation]

Thus Luther is stating that even when he is attributing illness to the devil he is not denying that there is something quite natural about the illness. This directly contradicts  the AronRa quote which further suggests it is not genuine. 

Now Luther continues, at the end of this quote, to state that some were asking him if it was against God’s will to use a doctor. Luther’s advice is pretty clear. He states that food solves the problem of hunger and that in the same way one should use a doctor if one is ill. This is a passage even the notorious Andrew Dickson White admits to. He says:

“Luther asked, "Do you eat when you are hungry?" and the answer being in the affirmative, he continued, "Even so you may use physic, which is God's gift just as meat and drink is, or whatever else we use for the preservation of life." Hence it was, doubtless, that the Protestant cities of Germany were more ready than others to admit anatomical investigation by proper dissections.”
Andrew Dickson White in ‘History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom’, CHAPTER XIII. FROM MIRACLES TO MEDICINE p. 248

This is a very interesting quotation since that book by White is clearly written with the intention of quote-mining huge numbers of Christian thinkers for the purpose of creating the impression of antagonism between science and Christian theism via the use of spurious quotations from either no source or secondary sources. 

 Furthermore, in Table Talk itself we find this passage:

“When I was ill at Schmalcalden, the physicians made me take as much medicine as though I had been a great bull. Alack for him that depends upon the aid of physic. I do not deny that medicine is a gift of God, nor do I refuse to acknowledge science in the skill of many physicians; but, take the best of them, how far are they from perfection? A sound regimen produces excellent effects. When I feel indisposed, by observing a strict diet and going to bed early, I generally manage to get round again, that is, if I can keep my mind tolerably at rest. I have no objection to the doctors acting upon certain theories, but, at the same time, they must not expect us to be the slaves of their fancies. We find Avicenna and Galen, living in other times and in other countries, prescribing wholly different remedies for the same disorders. I won't pin my faith to any of them, ancient or modern. On the other hand, nothing can well be more deplorable than the proceeding of those fellows, ignorant as they are complaisant, who let their patients follow exactly their own fancies; `tis these wretches who more especially people the graveyards. Able, cautious, and experienced physicians, are gifts of God. They are the ministers of nature, to whom human life is confided; but a moment's negligence may ruin everything. No physician should take a single step, but in humility and the fear of God; they who are without the fear of God are mere homicides. I expect that exercise and change of air do more good than all their purgings and bleedings; but when we do employ medical remedies, we should be careful to do so under the advice of a judicious physician."

--Martin Luther, _Table Talk_ DCCXXXIX, in Hazlitt trans., 316-17.

Please note the contrast. Whereas illness, disease and death are ultimately the work of the devil, Luther ascribes God as the author of medicine. Medicine is the gift of God according to Luther! This passage makes it quite clear how highly he viewed medicine. As a gift from god its status could not be any higher. Was Luther wrong to point out that the doctors of his day were fallible? Of course not! One does not have to read much about medicine at the beginning of the 16th century to know that Luther comes out looking quite reasonable that he did not believe everything doctors were claiming at that time. But notice his statement that “Able, cautious, and experienced physicians, are gifts of God.” It’s hard to think how he could have lavished any greater praise on them than that. For Luther, that was the ultimate praise. 

In conclusion let us imagine that AronRa’s quote is authentic. Well then it would need to be interpreted charitably in the context of these other texts. This would mean Luther was having a rant at less judicious physicians of his day. That way the passage could be reconciled with these other passages which can be sourced. However, in the absence of sufficient evidence that the quote is authentic and the positive evidence of quotations in Luther to the contrary we are justified in concluding that AronRa has, yet again, managed to misrepresent Martin Luther. The evidence suggests Martin Luther is owed an apology by AronRa on two counts by now. It will be interesting to see if he actually gets one won’t it?