Friday, September 28, 2012

Burden of evidence, and excessive kindness

Burden of Evidence

I am, I must admit, too kind when it comes to burden of evidence - going to some actual effort to disprove some claims made by Acharya without actual backup. In fact, I would not even have to do that under the normal interpretation of burden of evidence. If she makes a claim, she is to back it up - it is not up to the critic to tear it down.

Of course, I do hope Acharya will answer some of my criticism, and I welcome her here to do so. At that point, though, I will actually make far fewer claims than I do now - I will not work through volumes of text just to show that what I suspect is factually incorrect in fact really is understood to be incorrect.

Alas, the introduction to Suns of God seems to indicate no respect for scholarly standards, so I fear she may not understand this concept. When making a claim, it's up to whoever makes the claim to support it - not to the critic to disprove it. If supporting facts are provided, it is up to the critic to either a) concede the point or b) show the supporting facts insufficient or wrong or unsatisfactorily verified.

If this is not agreed on, no actual reasonable discussion is possible.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Suns of God, The God Sun (pt 2)

The God Sun

I left off at page 78 after a longish detour into the wonderful world of linguistics. In this chapter, we will see Acharya implicitly accept the science given in the previous post. We will later see her reject this same science when it suits her theory, a wonderful example of her inconsistent mix-and-match approach. As I try to keep the main text fairly scholarly at times (although I have failed to keep that distance at times, simply due to the staggering misrepresentation of facts), I have decided to partition the text in two: small-sized font indicates personal observations and opinions, normal-size indicates the more scholarly criticism. I have to do this, or the commentary would end up being excessively sarcastic and downright angry at the sheer levels of falsehood and misunderstanding present in the text. I hope this provides me with a pressure valve for to vent annoyance and frustration out of the main text. Also, turns out the chapter reached its end sooner than I remembered it would. Well, they all feel very much like one huge shapeless blob of the same stuff, so ...

An important thing, that cannot be ignored, is the sheer amount of assertion - often, asserting that "as has been shown" or "as we have seen", when the showing or seeing has been based on fabrication or very wishful thinking when it comes to interpreting sources. Repeating an assertion does not make it so. Showing is different from asserting. Since mentioning every such assertion would break up the review and make it highly unstructured - something along the line of [actual argument], oh hey, an unsubstantiated assertion, [actual ...] oh, hey, unsubstantiated assertion, [... argument] ...from now on, a compilation of unsubstantiated assertions will be posted once the major points of the book have been dealt with.

[1, pp.81-82] she claims Peruvian Inca nuns were in a jealously guarded state of virginity, which if violated was punished by death and effacement even of the burial spot. This claim seems to be based on a rather non-credible source - other sources seem to claim that virginity was not valued in any comparable way in Peru as it was in Europe.

The Slavonic or Slavic culture is Indo-european, as illustrated by the linguistical connection to Sanskrit: For example, the Slavonic sky god is "Svarog," the root of which, svar, meaning "bright,clear," is "related to the Sanskrit." A Slavic name for the sun god is "Dazhbog," wherein "bog" means "god" and "Dazh" is apparently related to the Sanskrit "Dyaus," referring to the sky-god father-figure, who is Zeus in Greek, Deus in Latin, Dieu in French and Dios in Spanish. Dazhbog, the Sun, is the "son of Svarog," the sky god, a classical astrotheological relationship. Another Slavic son of the sky is "ogon which can be compared to the Sanskrit agni..." As can be seen, sun worship was not only common around the globe, but it weaves together many of the world's cultures. Astrotheology is thus a very important area of study not to be dismissed or ignored, as it unites the world's cultures beyond their superficial and perilous divisiveness"
Огонь, ogon' is a (Russian) word for fire, shared in relatively similar form in other Slavic languages, related to the Sanskrit word for fire (agni, अग्नि) and the Latin word ignis. What is difficult to understand here is why Acharya mystifies this fact. A tribe back in the mists of pre-history had a word for fire that was something along those lines, it went through changes, and they end up as ogon', ignis and agni. These may have been associated with the sun already during proto-Indo-European times - it is a rather natural association to do. Since the ancients did not know how the sun worked (nor how fire worked), and did not use very technical definitions for their words - as we often don't need to either - the actual 'fire' of the sun and the fire in a pyre would probably actually seem more similar to them than fire and some acid dissolving some solid. (Yet, to modern science, the two latter are more similar.) 

But this doesn't require weird claims about the significance of the mistaken beliefs of people 3000+ years ago. 

French dieu and Spanish dios derive from the Latin, and hence are not really evidence of how widespread this name was among distinct people - this is like counting Latin thrice. Svarog being a sky-god requires some backing up in addition to Acharya's say-so. 

Regarding the significance of "astrotheology" we would notice that those who discovered these regular correspondences between Latin, Greek, Slavic, Germanic, Armenian, ..., Sanskrit and so on did not just look at haphazard theological terms from the different languages. They did in fact look at terminology from most walks of life: technology (the wheel, fire, equine terminology), flora and fauna, relations, social hierarchies, natural phenomena, verbs that are likely to be part of every social function. Had they restricted themselves to theological words, they would not know why ignis, agni and ogon' are related, they would just have a sneaking suspicion that, indeed, they are related. But that methodology lends itself to false cognates.

It seems Acharya wants the reader to think these facts are somehow kept secret and that they indicate much more than they actually do.

The conclusion of the chapter is essentially correct: sun-worship is ancient and widespread, God and the Sun probably were often understood to be the same. "There is simply no escaping that fact, no matter how sophistic and casuistic become the arguments ..." [1, p. 84], well, luckily, I doubt any serious scholar actually is claiming this to be in error. Why there has to be such an amounts of fabrication, misrepresentation, quotemining and tendentious reading of things to arrive at such an obvious conclusion is a question every reader should ask themselves.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Suns of God: The God Sun, part 1

The God Sun

(Still in a draft stage).

The onset of this chapter states the obvious: the sun has been a fixture on the skies of mankind for quite some time, and this can be noticed in every culture. This has, naturally granted it a prominent place in religions all over the world, but also in less religious contexts. Due to its ubiquitous nature, its occurrence in idioms and metaphors, stories and so on is no surprise to anyone - and her attempt to make it seem as though mainstream scholars would be surprised by this is confounding. For a different perspective on solar worship, I recommend this post. (Although the linguistic claims made in it should be taken with a grain of salt as well: Ahura Mazda is not cognate with Jupiter. The article it links to on the age of words is also phrased in a way that exaggerates the finds fairly strongly.)

However, some of the things she lists as indicative of the great religious importance of the sun are exaggerated. It's obvious that some things would be done with the sun above the heads of the ancients, as in times when the only alternative sources of light were fires of varying sizes using a variety of fuels. Now, in what essentially is a listing of views the ancients had of the sun she says they attributed the invention of writing to it, with the following quote, which says something quite different from what she says it says:

The sun was also portrayed as responsbile for the invention of writing and ciphers: In China, for example, some scholars have concluded that sun images on the Neolithic pottery of the Da-wen-kou culture (4300-2500 BC) could have been the basis of primitive Chinese script." [1. p 62]
The source given gives no further source, and as far as I can tell, none of the scholars involved in writing this volume were linguists. There is about a dozen Chinese sources listen in the bibliography of the book, but since none of them is given as a source for this particular statement, I can only throw my hands in the air in frustration. It is not an important claim, but it serves to prop up a vacuous thesis even more, and with the nature of the claim, Acharya's erudition seems even greater to the non-critical reader - wow, she reads stuff on historical Chinese linguistics as well...

Regarding Emperor Julian, the theory that he was assassinated by Christians is supported outright, despite the best and earliest sources supporting the claim that he was killed by a Persian soldier. [Look up sources]
I wonder if the libertarian slant given to Emperor Julian is intentional or not - given the popularity of libertarian ideals in the conspiracy-theory camp, it would not surprise me if she were trying to endear herself to the libertarian wing:
Julian was also very much a leader of the people, as he opposed the elite and reduced the government, acts that made him powerful enemies. [1, p. 67]
I am not dissing libertarianism, just noting a thing I kind of find suspicious. [Here, more sources have to be looked up.]

 Why Francis of Assisi is given a short paragraph [1, p. 70] is not clear - the point seems rather to be along the lines of showing that Christianity is paganism by showing that Francis of Assisi liked nature.

Acharya seems incapable of distinguishing comparing from equating, she provides a quote from Ficino:
Dionysius the Areopagite, the first of the Platonists, whose interpretation I hold in my hands, freely embraces a similar comparison of the Sun to God.[1, p. 71]
From this, she concludes that Dionysius the Areopagite considered the Sun to be God. Further she makes a weird point out of Malachi being the last book of the Old Testament, which "leads into the New Testament".[1, p. 71] The book of Malachi did not lead into the New Testament in the LXX, and an honest scholar of Greek would mention that, instead of trying to mislead readers.[2] Only with the translation of Vulgate, it seems, did the modern order appear. So sneaking such a point in there is quite dishonest as well.
It is important to remember that this writer was in a Catholic country, under the threat of the Inquisition. Yet, he was able to express the ancient perception of "God," as well as the pervasiveness and depth of sun worship. Knowing this fact, it is obvious that not only did sun worship permeate the world even up to the 15th century, within the supposedly "non-Pagan" religions, but that the Christian elite were quite aware of it.[1, pp. 71-72]
This is  not the only possible interpretation of the facts - the fact that all quotes he provides seem to use a language of simile, rather than equating God with the Sun is rather important here, and opens up for a number of rather less fantastic interpretations.

Regarding Ficino getting the gender of the moon right - there are two genders to guess, and I bet you will find authors of the time that got the moon masculine as well - so had she wanted to showcase that people all the way from ancient times had thought of the moon as a masculine god, that could just as well be done. Acharya seems to fail at understanding the insignificance of some facts. In this case, though, Italian having the moon in the feminine gender may have been a factor as well?

Claiming two words "am" and "on" to be "ancient" and mean sun is also quite unfalsifiable.[p. 75]. No primary source - or even language - is given. The ancient languages of the middle east were written in any number of scripts, and dictionaries are not exactly cheap to come by (and the middle east languages of antiquity are too many to list here - obtaining a dictionary for each and every one of those would make any man bankrupt). Simply put, by omitting information, she makes her claim uncheckable. This is not how a scholar goes about the business of being scholarly.
Bryant abundantly uses etymology to prove his points:
The most common name for the Sun was San, and Son; expressed also as Zan, Zon, and Zaan.... it is mentioned by [Hesychius]  that the Indian Hercules, by which is always meant the chief Deity, was styled Dorsanes... the name Dorsanes is an abridgement of Ador San, or Ador-Sanes, that is Ador-Sol, the lord of  light. It was a title conferred upon Ham...
Bryant notes that the Eygptian priests were called "Sonchin" or "Son-Cohen"-priests of the sun. Thus the English word "son" is not a false cognate with "sun," and it is truthfully said that the "son of God" is the "sun of God." This son-sun connection can also be found in the Indian language: In tracing many Indo-European and Vedic words to a common root, Roy proffers, among others, the root "son," representing "sunu" in Vedic and "son" in Indo-European. [1, 76]
This bit is so confused it should never have occured in print ever. I am at a loss how to most concisely answer it, and therefore, I end up having to explain the scholarly consensus on this matter:

The Indian Language per se is a meaningless term. In the context, it's clear she probably refers to Vedic Sanskrit. Modern India has 22 official languages, and over a hundred distinct languages divided on several language families[3]. Now, there is nothing surprising that a word in Vedic Sanskrit has a parallel in Indo-European, as Vedic Sanskrit is an Indo-European language.

This means Sanskrit (and its descendants: Punjabi, Hindi, etc) is a descendant of a language that once was spoken probably somewhere around Ukraine or central Asia. (Other plausible theories do exist as to where it was.) What exactly it means for one language to derive from another is unclear to many outside of the fields of philology, and this is why you will run into statements like "English derives from Latin", "Swedish derives from German", "Latin derives from Greek", and so on.

So, how does the Vedic Sanskrit word in common with (other) Indo-European work? Once, maybe 7000 years ago, some tribes spoke this language which left no written traces, as writing had not been invented yet. Not even now that writing has been invented do all languages spoken leave written traces, although now, there are scholars travelling around the world, trying to document as much as they can before small languages disappear.

These tribes expanded their territory, and moved out from their urheimat. While doing so, contact between different communities speaking this Proto-Indo-European language was reduced, and their speech diverged. As they arrived in areas with different vegetation, fauna, natural formation and so on, their vocabulary adapted to the different situations. Other words as well changed, due to whatever reasons - societal change, social reasons, etc. They encountered different non-indo-european tribes (and soon, they started to encounter indo-european tribes that had diverged sufficiently to speak so differently as to not be recognized as a tribe with the same origin), and interacted with them. Meanwhile, sound changes happened at different rates and of different kinds in the different communities, and at some point, PIE had fragmented into Proto-Italic, Proto-Albanian, Proto-Balto-Slavic, Proto-Celtic, Proto-Armenian, Proto-Indo-Persian, Proto-Hellenic, etc. The Proto- is used to denote, simply, that this is the earliest ancestor of all the Italic (and so on) languages, that is not also an ancestor of other languages.

Now, English, Dutch, Afrikaans and Low German are relatively closely related, and these together with the High German dialects form West Germanic. The fact that English has borrowed a lot of vocabulary from Latin and French does not transform English into a Latin language, although some have been led to believe it to be of Latin descent. English grammar, its core vocabulary, and phonology all give away its Germanic roots.

Likewise, tribes deriving from these proto-Indo-Europeans entered India, and their language further split up into new branches in that area. Different groups interacted with the previous inhabitants: the Burushaskis, the Dravidians, etc. Yet, most of the languages thus emerging from the IE stock retained clearly IE traits in their grammars, vocabulary, and so on.

Languages are known to influence each other when they are in contact - grammars do converge to some extent, vocabulary is borrowed, sound systems approach each other. But even then, these similarities seldom show any regular patterns to them, as words are borrowed at different times and go through different amounts of sound changes in both the source and receiver languages.

Diversion: in the natural sciences, to explain some phenomenon or natural law, (abstract) models are often constructed. If two models both explain the same observed results or phenomena, the simpler model is preferred. If two equally simple models explain the same observed results or phenomena, but differ slightly as to how accurate they are, the more accurate one is preferred. This is known (partially) as Occam's Razor.

The simplest model to explain why there are a huge number of regular correspondences between most languages of Europe, Kurdistan and Persia, and a large number of languages in India is that they share a common ancestor, from which they slowly have diverged. Centuries of scholarship already has traced these similarities. It is well established - more so than essentially anything else in philology - that Sanskrit, Latin, Greek, Proto-Germanic, Proto-Celtic, Proto-Armenian, Proto-Slavic (and so on) have a shared origin. For most of them, the sound changes it has taken to reach various stages in the history of these language families are well known, with just a few minor open questions left.

The model fits, it seems a reasonable development of things, and there is no other model that is as simple and as accurate - the alternative Acharya supports (although, it appears, waveringly) is some kind of Indigenous Aryan-theory - the Indo-European languages of India never arrived in India, they were always there. A theory that does not explain much regarding the observed linguistic facts (nor genetically established facts).

Son and sun both have etymologies that go back to Proto-Indo-European. Reconstruction is done not by looking at the word for sun in different languages, and then trying to figure out some kind of 'average' form or form from which all descendant forms could derive. Rather, reconstruction is done by comparing huge numbers of words, and trying to find rules which probably have changed large numbers of them in one language into the form they now have, from some potential previous form. The success of this method can be verified by reading up on the laryngeal theory and its archeological verification.

The resulting roots that Indo-Europeanists have reached are as follows:

Several Indo-European languages have inherited their words for the sun from
*sóh₂wl̥ and *sh̥₂uén, these were, apparently, inflected forms of the same word. [4, p. 206]
Son, on the other hand, comes from *seu̯H-, a verb meaning "to bear", whence PIE *suHnús. [4, p. 39]
The H means something like unknown laryngeal - the laryngeals were sounds that have been lost in all descendant languages of proto-Indo-European (except the extinct Hittite language).

Now, given the rules that are known for the derivation of every Indo-European language, these work out to give the forms we can see in the vast majority of Indo-European languages. Acharya S wants us to think that these rules magically excepted these two words for no other reason than it fits her theory.

This shoe fits, we cannot acquit. Now, the history of the theories that try to place the Indo-European Urheimat in India does not really belong here, but suffice to say, there is little of scholarly value in it, and a lot of militant Nationalism.

This chapter is so full of terrible scholarship that I must divide it in two, the next installment starts roughly at page 78 if anyone is keeping track. The number of major distortions of facts per page this far is something like 10 pages per major error. There's many potential errors I've let slip simply because time is finite. More to come.

[1] Suns of God, Acharya S, 2004
[4] Comparative Indo-European Linguistics An introduction, Prof. Robert S.P. Beekes, Dr. Michiel de Vaan,   2011

Monday, September 24, 2012

On the Frustration Inherent in Debunking

On the Frustration Inherent in Debunking

There is an interesting - and frustrating - phenomenon related to debunking: the time it takes to make a false statement is nearly infinitesimal in comparison to the time it takes to debunk it.

Example 1: Science thinks humans have spoken language for about 10,000 years now. 
That is a number I made up out of thin air. Now, debunk it. (Wikipedia doesn't count as a source.) This claim obviously belongs to linguistics, although it also somewhat overlaps with anthropology, evolutionary biology (and therefore paleontology) and maybe to some extent some other sciences. At least there's a starting point! (For some of the claims I've come across this far, the starting point is, well, obvious but in a way that does not help much. I will elaborate on that later.)

Then one has to locate a source, evaluate if the source is credible, ... So, making that claim up and writing it took all of ten seconds. Debunking it took a bit of thinking, a survey through the online databases of books available at the local libraries, checking whether any of the authors actually are authorities in their fields, finding books that are sufficiently new and also peer-reviewed, a trip to the particular libraries that happened to have such books available, (in the worst case, waiting for the previous person to have borrowed them to return them. Here, that makes a few weeks in worst case), and reading through sufficiently many chapters to find a clear statement about how long science does think humans have had language. A procedure that takes some time. In this case, the reason I would think the claim is spurious if I came across it is because I've heard a quite different date in linguistics 101, and in some other literature on the topic. I don't keep a log of every bit of knowledge I come across and what sources I can refer to when I want to repeat such a claim.)

I ended up with Tecumseh Fitch's The Evolution of Language. Of course, Fitch's book does not in its table of contents give a heading that says right out that a particular chapter contains the age of human language (or at least terminuses a quo and ante quem).

Here already, I am cheating a bit: had I not known that my claim was bullshit in the first place, I doubt one source would have been satisfactory to establish that science does think differently - science is not the statement of one scholar, but in a way some kind of weighted average of lots of scholars. Of course, there may be sources from earlier centuries, from religiously inclined scholars, other fringe scholars, etc, who will make claims that are quite far off from these estimates, and some of these scholars may even have some respectable credentials. Oftentimes, such credentials were given in times when science was less rigorous or had less evidence. Some get their credentials from colleges that are ideologically driven and do not even try to keep up with real science.

One big hurdle here is the availability of books: not all libraries have books that answer each question that might appear, and not even a university's access to electrical libraries and journals might provide sufficient material to verify or debunk each and every claim.

I have, in fact, gone through this procedure with some claims that turned out to be accurate as well. Here appears an important fact as well: the fact-checker is fighting up-hill. Sometimes, there is going to be the same effort invested no matter whether you are verifying a fact or debunking it. If the source you are investigating provides several minor supporting facts that are accurate and some major facts that are fabrications, the fact-checker runs into a frustrating situation, where he will end up evaluating a lot of claims for naught, even though the main thesis he is debunking indeed is wrong.

Still, it is clear that whoever is willing to mislead others has a great advantage, and if their readers are willing to be duped, the advantage is even greater.

Tecumseh Fitch does provide a terminus ante quem:
At a fundamental cognitive level, we humans are one species, each population possessing equivalent intellectual and linguistic capacities. This key fact enables us to infer with certainity that human linguistic and cognitive capacities were already fixed in our species by the time the first wave of human pioneers exited Africa and made it to Australia - at least 50 KYA (for a review, see Mellars, 2006). This time point (which is still controversial) represents the last plausible moment at which human linguistic abilities like those of modern humans had evolved to fixation in our species. [1, p. 273]
A worse kind of claim is those where even if a starting point is obvious, this still doesn't narrow the field down. This comes in claims like the similarity between some word in the Mayan language and Tamil, or unspecified similarities between Mexican and Hebrew [2, chapter 24] - both of which are important claims for Murdock's more wild theorizing. There are several Mayan languages, Katzner's The Languages of the World lists ten [3, p. 8]. Looking up the source provided by Murdock is a dead end - it only states this as a fact, not giving any source in which to verify it. [4, p. 9]
Now, I do not have access to dictionaries of these languages, and if I found a distinct lack of that word in a dictionary, there could be several explanations: it is a word in another Mayan language, it is a dialectal word that would not be included in a dictionary, it is a derived word form that is not included in a list of roots, ...

There is literally a dozen ways to wriggle out of being caught with one's pants down in that case. It is an unfalsifiable claim, as any attempt at falsifying it only leads to increasing amounts of work for the person investigating it with a skeptical mindset: ultimately, I will have to learn the ten Mayan languages (and the eleven other ones that appear in some other lists), all the extinct versions, and go to each and every village checking if the word actually exists there.

Obviously, science cannot work that way - its hands would be tied by those who would wish to mislead, having to spend all its time in a defensive posture against fabrication. This is why proper sources are required. A religious Hindu newspaper is not a proper source.

As for claimed similarities between Nahuatl and Hebrew, the supposed kind of similarities are not even mentioned. People with an interest in linguistics knows there are many dimensions along which a language can be similar: their grammars can behave in similar manners (as in the case of Finnish and Turkish, or Swedish and English, or ancient Greek and Russian), their vocabulary can be similar (as in the case of the Romance languages and English, or the Germanic languages and English), their phonologies can be similar (Norwegian and Swedish, Estonian and Finnish, Russian and Polish, Polynesian languages and Japanese, Tamil and Marthutunira). Of course, the person making such a claim probably is unaware of all these ways in which languages can be similar (or different).

Of course, this makes the person that is knowledgeable about these matters and who wants to do a really comprehensive debunking likely to run into problems: he will want to debunk every possible claim that he can imagine here (or at least show that what is claimed to follow from such a similarity does not follow).

Ultimately, a line must be drawn somewhere - vague claims that are not given sources at all (or where the source does not back its claim up) cannot be dealt with. The author has been dishonest, and misleading in not making a clearer claim. The claim must be rejected until a more specific claim can be provided instead.

And this is a trick Acharya S repeatedly uses.

Acceptable errors?

Even in real, serious, scholarly literature, errors will creep in. No one can know all the fields that modern science and technology (or other scholarly fields) utilize. A favorite example of mine appears in some editions of Peterson and Davies' Computer Networks, A Systems Approach. It is a good book, well deserved of its position at many universities as the textbook for courses on networks. One minor error has sneaked in that I have noticed - and a really inconsequential one, at that.
First, there is the speed-of-light propagation delay. This delay occurs because nothing, including a bit on a wire, can travel faster than the speed of light. If you know the distance between two points, you can calculate the speed-of-light latency, although you have to be careful because light travels across different mediums at different speeds. [5, p. 42]
 This text by and large is correct, the minor error being that information in fact can travel faster than light when light travels slower than c under exceptional circumstances. The text implies that the speed of light in a medium is the fastest anything can travel in that medium. Now, this is incorrect. Nothing can surpass the speed of light in vacuum, in any medium would be a more accurate wording. Of course, this does not even get into the issue of phase velocity vs. group velocity.

We know by now that light can be slowed down to about 20 km/s. Simply sending information encoded in neutrinos through such a medium would violate the claim made there. However, no one will run into that in any situation where information is being transmitted for quite some time or for the purpose of actually transmitting information, and other situations in which information actually are transmitted faster than the speed of light in the medium are so exceptional as to make the claim in the text acceptable - the possible methods to do so are so impracticable they probably never will see any actual implementation. Counterexamples pretty much only serve as proofs of concept, and this is not even an issue in physics.

Ultimately, we conclude that this mistake isn't even a problem: no alternative physics or models of networks is being proposed on the basis of this claim in the book, and in practice, it will actually be correct as far as engineers of electronic communication are concerned for the rest of, well, probably all of history. However, no physicist will quote this book as evidence that modern physics rejects the notion of communication faster than the "local" speed of light in a medium - since the book is not written by a physicist, not meant to teach physics, and not a source for statements about physics. If a paper on physics referred to this volume in regard to physics, the student's advisor would do well to suggest another source be used. If the student referred to this volume in regard to some algorithm or solution used in electronic communication and investigated some physical solution to a problem mentioned, the student could very well refer to this book even in a physics paper - but even in that case, the book is only an authority within its field. (Even then, the student would do better to refer to some more up to date source about the particular problem.)

Is the flipped coin fair?

In maths, there is an interesting problem: how many times do you have to flip a coin (or dice) before you know (to some level of certainty), that the coin has been tampered with to increase the likelihood of one side over the other. Turns out we can never know for sure (without actually measuring the weight distribution of the coin or something), but we can know with some certainty. The more tests we perform, the closer to 100% certainty whether it's fair or not we reach - but we never get quite there.

Knowing the maths, we can also do this for a dice, or other sources of random numbers. Now, it would be joyous if we could do the same for scholars. How many claims do we have to investigate before knowing whether a scholar is crooked or honest, credulous or scholarly? I have already showcased an irrelevant error - one where the error did not substantially alter the quality of the work it occured in.

The scholarly community doesn't have a formal line an author has to pass to be rejected as a crackpot. If there were a good way of calculating the likelihood that someone was a crackpot based on the number of mistaken claims, that would be very useful. Refusal to go through peer-review yet maintaining that one's research (generally from secondary and tertiary sources) is ground-breaking is an important indicator. Sometimes, brilliant scholars in one field publish crackpot material in another. The psychology behind that is difficult to understand.

However, to let the claims made stand for themselves, I've decided to read her material and let it speak for itself, rather than allegations and aspersions as to her motives. So, we get back to the tedious fact-checking. Obviously, some claims do tend to have greater gravity than others, and to be more important for the conclusion than others - a sufficient sample of fabrications among them should be a good start? Is a sufficient sample of erroneous factoids given in support of the thesis also a good indicator?

Here the analogy to the tampered-with coin comes in: a reasonable sample of fabrications, errors and distortions should be sufficient to establish that a scholar is not credible - whether he or she intentionally is duping us, or is just lost in a maze of delusion or misunderstanding. Alas, I cannot make a definite statement that this or that claim in particular was the straw that broke the camel's back - but anyone who sees the sample of downright bullshit I will quote and debunk here must conclude that she is not a credible scholar.

Minor further observation

Of course, the charlatan has another advantage. Many charlatans of Acharya's kind sell something. There is a market for conspiracy theories. The market for debunking conspiracy theories is much much smaller - among her readers, few will be interested in a volume the raison d'etre of which is to take her to task for shoddy scholarship. This, combined with the imbalance between the charlatans and the defenders of reason that I already described, creates a situation where charlatans can thrive - debunking them simply does not pay off.

Just think, who would buy a book whose only purpose is showing another book (or some other books) wrong, without presenting any more groundbreaking theory than "the scholarly community, by and large, are right about things, and the things they're wrong about are either minor things or things that will be corrected as academia finds and evaulates new evidence"?

Even further suspicion

I wonder when a cease-and-desist letter will hit me over this - as I do use a fair share of quotes (but these quotes can be justified the way Acharya justifies her excessive quoting). If it happens, I will maintain my quotes fall under fair use. If a cease and desist note never arrives, I will be quite happy, and I will respect Acharya at least a bit for that. If one does, well, in that case I hope the sender of it tells me how to show that I am not misrepresenting the material I am debunking and also make it clear that I have actually read the books. C.f. how a fan of Acharya's accuses a critic of not having read the book in the first place. 

[1] The Evolution of Language, Tecumseh Fitch, 2010
[2] The Christ Conspiracy, the Greatest Story ever Sold, Acharya S, 1999
[3] The Languages of the World, Kenneth Katzner, 2002
[4] Hinduism Today, June 1995. Available at
[5] Computer Networks, a Systems Approach. Larry L. Peterson, Bruce S. Davie. The error is present in both editions 3 and 4.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Suns of God : Introduction

The Introduction is short on facts. Of course, the idea in general is not to provide the reader with facts at this point, but explain where the book will take us. Acharya does use it for one other purpose: reading this chapter is likely to make the reader somewhat hostile to religion.

Whereas this is a reasonable stance - religions have undoubtedly done more than their fair share of damage to mankind. However, starting out a reasoned investigation into the historical roots of religion with such an emotional pleading is unlikely to lead to rational conclusions - some readers will be more willing to swallow fabrication, exaggeration and distortion when induced into such a state of mind.

The introduction also serves to justify her shoddy methodology.
When it comes to religion, alternative perspectives are considered highly suspect and are subject to intense scrutiny, held up to impossible standards of proof, while the accepted paradigm is lightly handled and can pass with little or no evidence at all. [...] Moreover, when doing investigative research into religion, dating back thousands of years, one must use a variety of sources, ancient and modern. If one uses works too modern, the hue and cry is for "primary sources!" If one uses material "too old," the criticism is that it is "outdated." Hence, the religious scholar is put in a double bind, while the critical fanatic is never satisfied. In such a picky environment, it is a wonder anything important is ever written or read.
The "outdated" argument becomes specious when it is understood that the work of more "modern" authors is nonetheless based on those who proceeded. To become a scholar one must study as much as is possible; obvious,y whatever one is studying must have come before. The current studies are based on the past studies. No modern writer can possible be called a scholar if he or she has not studied the works of the past; hence, he or she is using what detractors would call "outdated" material. [1, pp 8-9]
 There is an important omission in here: old material can be obsolete because it has been studied, and found wanting. A lot of the scholarship in comparative religion of the late 19th and early 20th century has been found wanting in exactly that manner. We know most of the scholars of that time subscribed to notions of societal evolution where religion, etc, was expected to develop towards something much like Christianity over time - animism gives way to polytheism, polytheism to monolatry, monolatry to monotheism, and some even thought monotheism naturally would be superseded by monotheism with trinitarianism. Assuming many facts like these, the study of both ancient and contemporary religion reached some conclusions that since have been found very flawed.
The problem of early comparative religion, really, was that if you set out looking for something that is essentially like Christianity, you will interpret what you find as though it is essentially like Christianity. The early scholars of comparative religion only really had experience with Christianity of different kinds, occasionally a bit of Judaism (but not really - as the Judaism you find described in early western scholarship of the time is more like protestant-era projections of their exaggerated view of Catholicism onto the Pharisees), and occasionally Islam, whose similarities to Christianity are rather natural.

So, the "model" for religion these scholars worked with basically took a description of Christianity, left some blanks, and went to find what word they should fill out the blanks with - replace Christ by Buddha, Krishna, etc, and you get Buddhism, Hinduism, etc.

Further, she tends to use sources that are not of an academical kind. Polemical works that lack in methodology, facts and all things scholarly.

Similar problems appear wherever she makes claims of a linguistic nature. The linguists of old were more willing to claim things about languages that few linguists today would:
The Sanscrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure; more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either. [2]
No such claims would be made by any linguist since, say, 1950-1960, but in 19th and even early 20th century linguistics, scholarship had not quite been separated from prejudice and misguided aesthetics as it is today. Yet, she is willing to accept mistaken, outdated ideas by people even less knowledgeable about language than the linguists of the 19th century.

This irrational excuse for outdated sources should by itself be enough to relegate the book on the junkpile.

Much of what has survived the ages literarily is due to the practice of quoting. Hence, as was the case with The Christ Conspiracy, this book, Suns of God, is "quote heavy" for a number of significant reasons. ... Also, providing originals leaves no room for "interpretation," and many of these writers are so concise and pithy as to be nearly impossible to paraphrase. [1, 10]
"Interpretation" still is possible, as there are sufficient examples of quote-mining in her oeuvre.

On page 12, a subheading "Ancient Cultural Commonality" introduces an idea she develops later on. She starts by quoting Lord Kingsborough by proxy of Dr. Inman - tertiary sources just are the best, aren't they? The main point she brings forth is the presence of religious traits very much like Catholicism and Judaism in Nahua civilization. Now, it is unlikely she has perused any 20th century linguistic works on the Uto-Aztecan languages, as "Mexican" has not really been used as a term for any of them since the 19th century.
However, close scrutiny reveals that the Mexican culture could not have come from either Jews or Christians, and represents an earlier, pre-Christian and pre-Judaic tradition. For one thing, although the languages of Hebrew and Mexican possess many similarities, there is no evidence in Central America of any example of Hebrew writing, which indicates that these cultures emerged from the same root, separated before the development of the alphabet. [1, p. 14]

No. The similarities that exist between Hebrew and Mexican are rather typical of languages that share certain basic properties - such as VSO word order - that is, in a relatively unmarked sentence, the verb goes first, followed by the subject and then by the object. VSO order is shared by about 8% of the world's languages or so. (There are six possible such orders, SVO and SOV dominate by a rather large margin - so much so that the three possible orders where the object goes before the subject together have less than 8% between them.)[3] A remarkable typological fact is that certain basic properties of a language tend to cause other properties to appear. Since Acharya does not provide any source for her claim for similarity, I have to assume she means typological similarities, as I know of no regular correspondences.

Regular correspondences have been accepted as the only really sufficient method to show that two languages are related. This means that it has to be possible to construct a set of words, which by one set of changes produce a relatively large number of the words of one of the languages, and by another set produces the words of another. For more than two languages to be related, such a set of words has to be possible to construct for all of them - oftentimes, there'll be intermediate nodes for a subset of the languages. Of course, words will have been lost in the different languages, and some irregularities will creep in, but by and large, regular changes need to be demonstrated. Of course, over time, the meanings of words can change, and that is a less regular process, but even so, some kind of realistic changes have to be shown.

To claim that the Semitic (to which Hebrew belongs, a language family that is solidly reconstructed, and to which belongs several middle-east languages as well as some north African ones) languages and the Uto-Aztecan (to which Nahuatl, and a number of languages in Mexico and the US belong) are related would require some backing up. And if this backing only provided typological evidence, well, then we should have to accept that the Celtic languages at some point magically became related to the Semitic and Uto-aztecan languages after centuries of not having been related to them. A scenario any historical linguist worth his salt will reject - and not in order to prop up a Christian conspiracy, but because this is what science tells him.

I realize the methodology and ideas in use in linguistics might be unfamiliar to the average reader, and if there is interest, I may clarify these things further.

Furthermore, she makes up some stuff about how the St Thomas Christians of India weren't even Christians until the Catholic church forced them to be. A good study of sources could be in place. A good starting point  can be found in Philip Jenkins' The Lost History of Christianity. A review of the quality of the work can be found at Armarium Magnus.

Further claims of similarities of words show a complete ignorance of historical linguistics, assuming that an Indian word "tamas" (or somesuch) would be related to an Egyptian "Thamauz". Egyptian is a Semitic language, Sanskrit is Indo-European. Meanwhile, she repeatedly makes claims of Christian-like cultus in both the Americas and Asia - and I am left to wonder whether her sources simply are of the kind I described earlier in this post: looking for Christianity, they fill in the blanks in a way reminiscent of Christianity, since their model for what a religion is Christianity in the first place.

Some of the criticism of the veracity of the Bible is fairly spot-on, though, but the hyperbole regarding how important her research is downright feels overpowering.

[1] Acharya S, Suns of God Krishna, Buddha and Christ Unveiled (2004)
[2] Sir William Jones,

Suns of God, Chapter 1: Astrotheology of the Ancients

Astrotheology of the Ancients

The first error to leap out of the text occured almost immediately into the first proper chapter of the book.
The nomads noticed regularity and began to chart the skies, hoping to divine omens, portents and signs. Others who developed this astronomical science included ancient mariners who journeyed thousands of miles through the open seas, such as the Polynesians, whose long, Pacific voyages have been estimated to have begun at least 30,000 years ago. [1, page 26]

Katzner's The Languages of the World states
THE AUSTRONESIAN, or Malayo-Polynesian, family of languages extends from Malaysia and Indonesia to parts of New Guinea, to New Zealand, the Philippines, across the Pacific Ocean, and, westwards, to Madagascar off the east coast of Africa. Its speakers number about 325 million, all but one million of whom speak a language of the so-called Western branch. There are three other branches: Micronesian, Oceanic, and Polynesian.[2, page 24]
This quote is necessary to establish that Oceanic is included in Austronesian, and that these two families are not two unrelated groupings of languages whose names would falsely mislead the reader on account of being names of geographically adjacent areas.
Katzner continues:
The background and the details of the great Austronesian migrations are still largely a mystery. The original homeland of the people was no doubt somewhere in Asia, perhaps in India, present-day Malaysia or Indonesia, or even Taiwan. There are signs that the settlement of the islands of the Pacific began as early as 1500 BC, about the same time that some of the Indo-European tribes were settling in their new homelands.[2, page 24]

This puts Acharya's estimate at one order of magnitude greater than that which scholars seem to agree on these days. Certainly people have been travelling at sea for longer than that - the settlement of Australia, England, Sri Lanka, Papua New Guina, Australia, etc. demonstrate that, but at the time, none of these required any considerable open-sea navigation. I will not even go so far as to say that her claim that observation of the sky for the purpose of navigation is spurious, just that the facts she cites are false.

Regarding Acharya's claims, even when she provides sources, looking up the sources is often worthwhile:
In recent years, a great number of such ruins on all inhabited continents have been discovered that possess astronomical alignments, whether to the sun, moon, planets or constellations. For example, in 1998 it was reported that the "oldest astronomical megalith alginment" was discovered in Southern Egypt:
 An assembly of huge stone slabs found in Egypt's Sahara Desert that date from about 6,500 years to 6,000 years ago has been confirmed by scientists to be the oldest known astronomical alginment of megaliths in the world.2
 Interestingly, buried around this structure were cattle, while the date of the "temple" corresponds to the precessional Age of Taurus the Bull, some 6500 to 4300 years ago. [1, p. 27]
 This claim would be more remarkable if it could be shown that sacrifices of bulls ceased at about 4300 years ago, as the Age of Taurus came to an end. Cattle has obviously been a valuable resource to its owners in all times, and religious sacrifice - in most religions that practice it - has included things of value to the practitioners.

Of course, reading the paper which her resource links to gives:
In addition to bones of gazelles, hares, jackals, and small mammals, most of the sites also contain bones of cattle, which may have been used for milk, blood, and transport. [...]
The abundance of cattle remains in the Middle and Late Neolithic settlements is consistent with the ritual traditions of modern pastoralists, who may slaughter cattle to mark socially important events.[3]

Repeated and exaggerated claims of 'lost' knowledge can be found every now and then:
The astronomical science of the ancients is the same used today to determine full moons, eclipses, conjunctions and other cosmic events both past and future. It is because of the ancient study that we have this capability today, although our abilities are just beginning to catch up to the archaeoastronomy of such peoples as the Maya and their forebears. This regression and loss of knowledge is due to cataclysm and the destruction of human culture. [1, page 28]
The abilities we have today far surpass ancient abilities. Things such as general relativity are leaps and bounds ahead of the knowledge of ancient astronomers. Many of the mathematical tools necessary for the astronomical advances of the last three hundred years are not present in the writings of the ancient philosophers (although at times, they stumbled close to inventing calculus - one of the necessary tools of today. Of course, calculus is not sufficient for relativity, but even calculus is quite ahead of anything that antiquity had. Had calculus been known in antiquity, we could be quite sure of not only finding philosophers accidentally stumbling close to it, but of actually obtaining results that were much beyond the results they did obtain.)
Thus, astrology - a "godlike science" - dates back thousands of years and has been an important part of human civilization. According to mainstream archaeology, the oldest extant text specifically addressing "astrology" dates from the 3rd millennium BCE; yet, the astrological religion or astrotheology is recorded abundantly in Indian, Egyptian and Sumerian sacred literature as well, some of which represents traditions much older than the third millennium. Also, as noted, megalithic ruins push astronomical knowledge back at least 6,000 to 6,500 years ago, while ancient mariners reveal such knowledge dating back to 30,000 or more years ago. [1, page 29]
Again, 30,000 or more years is an order of magnitude too large. Certainly astrology and astronomical thought goes back rather far - as the sky kind of is an universally available (and mysterious) thing to most people. No one, of course, is denying this. Her exaggeration, though, is there for a reason.
Also, as concerns language and complex abstract concepts, it would seem that the ancients arrived at eloquence of speech and thought much earlier than has been suspected within mainstream science. A language such as Sanskrit, for example, represents the pinnacle of thousands of years of refinement, comparable in art to the progression from finger-painting to expert execution. Furthermore, languages can change quickly over a period of centuries, and it is likely that many languages now extinct existed in very ancient prehistoric times. Each "tribe" or grouping had its own words for local plants and animals that would create a distinct dialect, and no one can honestly say that other languages prior to Sanskrit did not attain as glorious a height. [1, page 31]
This is the first hint in this book as to her beliefs in an advanced world-wide pre-antiquity civilization. She sneaks in such arguments in a number of places without exactly explaining why, probably so that when reaching her final arguments on that topic, the reader is primed to accept them. Now, this is based on a major fallacy.

Yes, Panini's grammar of Sanskrit was a great achievement. But what kind of an achievement was it? It was an achievement of descriptive linguistics. This means he observed how the language in the holy scriptures and liturgies worked, and described the regularities thereof. Apparently, no descriptive grammar of any language was done with the same care and depth as his until over a millennium and a half later.

This does mean that Sanskrit did have a rather large amount of grammar even prior to Panini's groundbreaking study. So where did this grammar come from, if not "thousands of years of refinement"? Well, yes, there's thousands of years of refinement behind it, none or very little of which was intentional, orchestrated refinement the way Acharya here tries to imply.

The mechanisms of language change are a huge topic. However, pretty much all regularities we have in language are a result of analogy. A volume such as Andrew Carstairs-McCarthy's The Evolution of Morphology would probably suffice to explain how complexity arises in languages: it's a result of numerous people interacting. While doing so, they create regularity by analogy - we are, after all, very good pattern-matching machines, and we often generalize patterns even in our speech. Meanwhile, sound change serves to create irregularity. There is a constant tug-of-war between these two (and some other processes), which end up creating language. A given language is of course not just one set of rules, as different speakers may have generalized somewhat different patterns, and the same speaker may actually use different patterns in different situations. We know there are complicated languages that definitely have not been constructed by a prehistoric civilization, viz. Nicaraguan Sign Language (which is only a few decades old). Such languages quickly amass a complex grammar - proof that deaf people in Nicaragua were orchestrated by a forgotten prehistoric civilization, I surmise. No, really, a complex civilization is not necessary for complex language, and some very complex things go on in languages we can be completely certain did not have any contact with a complex civilization in their prehistory.
Roy postulates that various artifacts found deep in caves, such as the painting known as "Sorcerer with the Antelope's Head" from Les Trois Freres caves in the French Pyrenees were occupied during the Magdalenian period, 10,000-16,000 years ago, although Robert Graves dates the painting to "at least 20,000 B.C" Regarding possible rituals performed in these caves, some of which are very inaccessible and would therefore likely represent the place of a secret, esoteric initiation, ... [1, page 33]
Getting to nitpicking, one can point out that what is inaccessible today may not have been inaccessible 10,000 years ago. This is nitpicking, though, and not a major fabrication of hers, and I could have let this pass if it weren't for my frustration with the amount of pure bullshit I have come across this far (note: at the moment of writing this, I am reading the book for the second time). When facts majorly have been fabricated or distorted to favor your thesis, when you have used spurious arguments to discredit pretty much all of academia (yet use an academic title as a credential), even minor infractions done to further your thesis are to be pointed out.

A rather true thing she points out, is of course that Christmas occurs at the winter solstice, a prominent astronomical event, around which any number of prechristian celebrations have been centered. But it is worth noting that this is a thing the Christian churches tend to be quite forthcoming about: the celebration of Jesus' birth was intentionally set at a solstice to compete with pagan religions celebrating that same date. (NB: My observation that Christian churches have been fairly forthcoming about this is my own experience, based on living in a country where even the semi-state-church Lutheranism is fairly secular. However, in support of my claim, also see how the Church of Scotland has often opposed christmas celebrations due to their pagan background, and the same can be said for Jehovah's Witnesses, who of course are a marginal Christian group. This, however, demonstrates that such admissions are made in several, quite independent parts of Christianity.)

Oftentimes, rather notable claims are made with no sources given to support them. However, claims I wouldn't doubt sometimes are backed up by ample sources:
 Another ancient authority who wrote about astrotheology was Marcus Varro, a roman soldier, praetor and writer who lived from 116 BCE to around 27-29 BCE .... Varro is considered a "man of immense learning," "one of the most erudite people of his day," the "most learned of the Romans," "Rome's greatest scholar" and "the most erudite man and the most prolific writer of his times." Writers who raved about Varro's brilliance and erudition included "Tully" or Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BCE) and Terentian (2nd century CE). Even Christians admired his erudition. In The City of God (VI, 2), regarding the gods and sacred rites of the ancients, Christian saint Augustine asks:
"Who has investigated those things more carefully than Marcus Varro? Who has discovered them more learnedly? Who has considered them more acutely? Who has written about them more diligently and fully?"
Augustine also relates that Varro "wrote forty-one books of antiquities." Although Varro's works were burned during his lifetime, after he was outlawed by Marc Antony, a significant portion of his material was evidently extant in Augustine's day. 
Varro's voluminous efforts totaled "about 74 works in more than 600 books on a wide range of subjects ... Unfortunately, one of his most important books, Antiquities of Human and Divine Things, suspiciously has not survived. [1, p. 36]
This imbalance of sourcing statements bothers me a lot - it is as if, by providing sources for uncontroversial claims, the controversial or downright fabricated ones somehow are covered as well. I will henceforth refer to Marcus Varro whenever, in my opinion, a claim is made that requires supporting references. If half a page of text can be wasted on establishing Varro's credentials, a footnote, a page number and a name of a book is not too much to ask for regarding any number of claims that are not widely known, yet she assumes can be expected to be widely enough held claims not to require any support.

Acharya constantly tries to make the reader see sun-worship everywhere, as can be seen here:
In discussing the Europeans, the French scholar reminds the reader of Plato's assertions that the Greek gods were no different than those of the "barbarians," i.e., the heavens, the sun, moon, stars and planets. In Italy, the Sicilians consecrated three oxen to the sun, while "Sicily" itself means "island of the Sun" [1, p. 38]
Now, it turns out that "Sicily" comes from the Sicels, the name of one of the three tribes that inhabited Sicily at some point during antiquity (together with the Sicani and the Elymians). Alas, we don't know much about the language of the Sicels - it seems we have reason to think they spoke some Italic language, but this is not established for certain. We do not know the exact meaning of Sicel (or Zikeloi, as the Greeks rendered their name), but there doesn't really exist any linguistically sound reason to posit that it means anything along the lines of "sun". A claim such as the one she's making does require some kind of backing up - reference to an etymological dictionary, a paper on the meanings of names of locations, or anything really along those lines. Woodard says:
The name assigned to the language, Sicel or Siculan, is that given by Greek colonists to the native peoples of Sicily whom they there encountered in the eighth century BC.[6, p. 6]
The etymological dictionaries I've been able to access provide no further indication as to the meaning of this name (Σίκελος, zíkelos). However, sun was sóh₂wl̥.in Proto-Indo-European, and for that to turn into zikelos in some derived language would require quite unusual sound changes (although not impossible ones. Fortition is not an entirely ruled-out change. However, considering that h₂ was lost rather early in all Indo-European languages (only Hittite being attested to have retained it, a language that had been extinct for some time by the point the Greeks encountered the Sicelians), fortition thereof to /k/ is rather unlikely. Sicily's actual etymology any further than that is, alas, unknown - a fact which Acharya would have been much more honest to point out.
It is clear from ancient and modern sources alike that this celestial and nature worship dates back many thousands of years. It is a tremendous pity that this absorbing and important knowledge has been so suppressed and ignored, as not only would it have brought joyous enlightenment but it also would have alleviated and prevent much suffering, including the destruction of cultures and endless genocide worldwide, based on the religious divisiveness of the past millennia. [1, p. 38-39]
By repeated statements like the above, Acharya portrays herself as some kind of envoy of peace or whatever,. whose scholarly claims are done out of love for mankind or something. Cultural destruction has been driven just as much by economy, areligious arrogance, and competition between European powers that had a shared religion.

Omissions of facts are made everywhere:
As can be seen, mathematics too was a large part of the revered astral science. The number 360 also constitutes a sacred number, representing the days of the year in the ancient calendar, as well as the degrees of the zodiac.
"The ancient calendar"? Which one of them? There is not just one of them, there are several ancient calendars. A year length of 360 days is not universally shared by all of them.

From its evident zodiacal representation, a disk from Bulgaria called the "Karanovo Zodiac" demonstrates that such knowledge is at least 6,000 years old. The zodiac of Denderah in Egypt depicts the circle as it appeared around 10,000 years ago, although the artifact itself and the building where it was found are only about 2,000 years old. [1 p. 42]
Actual astronomers have concluded that the sky depicted on the Denderah Zodiac fits very well with the age of the building.
Why did the Egyptians go to so much trouble to create this sky map? Cauville reckons the solar eclipse must have occurred in Alexandria at around the same time that Ptolemy Auletes died. So Cleopatra had the Zodiac created to "inscribe for eternity" the moment of his death, or to be more precise, her own rise to power.
"It's a shame that so many fanciful things have been written about the zodiac," she says. "The astronomical reality is so much more beautiful." [5] 
Astronomers of the 19th century, though, lacking the modern tools we have, may have had occasional problems with it. Regarding both the Karanovo and Denderah Zodiacs, these claims are sufficiently special spheres of knowledge that sources would be expected.

Apparently relying upon the famous Babylonian epic the "Enuma Elish" Berossus engages in further astrotheological discussion beginning with a "woman named Omorka," who is Thalath in the Chaldean and Thalassa in the Greek, a word meaning "sea" and equivalent to Mare or Mary. [1, p. 45]
Why a Hebrew / Aramaic name would have such a Latin etymology is never elaborated on.
"Bel also created the stars and the sun and the moon and the five planets." The "five planets" are those known to the ancients and represented by the days of the week: Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus and Saturn.[1, p. 45]
Here, an important thing to point out is how the Jewish week seems to have been a kind of inversion of the Babylonian week: the Sabbath is a day of joy, the corresponding Babylonian day a day of bad omens - a simple calendarical shibboleth perchance? (See, e.g. Leofranc Holford-Strevens' The History of Time, a Very Short Introduction, Chapter 5.)
Although Berossus speaks of the "disc of the sun," the historian's moon is not a flat disc but a round sphere, which indicates that ,contrary to popular belief, at least some of the ancients knew the spherical nature of the earth, moon, sun and other planets - facts, then, not "discovered" but rediscovered in the West during the Christian era.[1, p. 46]
The myth that medieval European scholars believed the Earth to be flat is a classic canard. I will not even provide "proper" sources for this one, but rather give you a few links to go by:
Reviews, naturally, are just reviews. The book reviewed by Tim O'Neill is well worth reading.

It is well known that the ancient Greeks not only knew the Earth was round, but also calculated its size surprisingly well. Enough ancient literature regarding this remains that we even know some of the methods by which a good approximate value for the circumference of the Earth was calculated. Appendix I, "On the Measurement of the Earth" in Duane W. Roller's commented translation of Eratosthenes' Geography provides an overview. Trigonometry is the main tool he uses, but he also uses an average of the travel time for camel caravans between two cities in order to obtain the distance.
As can be seen, the world's cultures have for millennia revolved in large part around the astrotheological interpretation of the cosmos. Astrotheology has been the principal religious concept globally since the dawn of human history. As will be further demonstrated, it continues to be the basis of the world's reigning popular religions.[1, p. 53]
This assumes some kind of fallacy along the lines of  the Ship of Theseus. Is a religion still astrotheological if its astrotheological bits are no longer understood that way? Is it astrotheological if the bits have been replaced by non-astrotheological bits? Even then, the assumption that all the bits are astrotheological has not been solidly shown, no matter Acharya's claims to the contrary.

Regarding euhemerism, she writes
As abundantly shown, many ancient authors correctly identified astrological and natural entities and forces. Obviously, these perceptions are confused and contradictory. The knowledge that the gods were in reality the sun, moon, stars, earth and natural forces thus became hidden under long, rambling and irrational screeds, making this fact a secret or mystery. ... [1, p. 54] 
Yes, let us not even check whether these sources are confused or contradictory - let us just assert it!

A fair number of accurate statements do occur throughout the chapter - but these can be found in any non-partisan book on church history or history in general that is well-researched. Why one would read a source that adds fabrication, quote-mining and distortion to that is beyond my understanding.

[1] Acharya S, Suns of God, Krishna, Buddha and Christ Unveiled, 2004.[2] Katzner, Kenneth, The Languages of the World, 2002. [3]
[6] Woodard, Roger D., The Ancient Languages of Europe, 2008.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

On Acharya S

[The review of The Christ Conspiracy has now been completed. There is a summary, as well as a two-part synopsis (part 1, part 2)]

I have been reading a lot by D.M. Murdock recently. Her books moved me to start this blog.

I do hope many of her fans will read my posts on her books - the first series of posts I have planned out is basically an in-depth review of her books The Christ Conspiracy, Christ in Egypt and The Suns of God.

I am not the first to do this, but I have found a bit of an omission in the reviews and criticisms I've read: most are written by theologians. This, per se, is not really a problem, but it has some effects that may be problematic:

  • Her fans may see theology and especially academical theology and its representatives as a conservative, hostile bunch of ivory-tower residents that want to keep outsiders out, and who often are inclined to side with Christian orthodoxy. To some extent, this is even a true objection. 
  • Murdock makes several claims that are not of a theological nature. She especially likes to use claims that are of a linguistic nature (see also chapter 16) (but also see the quality of the linguistics in her sources, e.g. Barbara Walker, Drummond). I do not expect theologians to know when her use of linguistics is shoddy or misleading. Considering she claims to be a Greek scholar, it is interesting how ignorant she is of linguistic methodology and of how language actually works. It seems she subscribes to some kind of very anglo-centric view where the English names of things somehow say something essential about the thing (see "God's spell" as an informative example). As if English is a magic lens into the underlying reality behind every concept, and that other languages somehow imperfectly reflect essences.
  • Her reasoning also often fails at being logical. Now, as a computer science student, logic is kind of a central tool I end up using quite regularly, and I understand a fair bit of this illustrious topic. Some of her flawed reasoning may not be as readily obvious to someone more into subjects such as theology. I am not saying that theologians are necessarily illogical, but some illogical things may on occasion pass them by (and sometimes members of their ranks concoct fairly illogical reasoning as well). However, in the interest of completeness, I have decided to include flawed reasoning wherever I see it, even though others have pointed out the same flawed reasoning.
  • My interest in pragmatics and linguistics in general has made me aware of how she phrases things. Her phrasing sounds like casting aspersions both left and right a lot of the time, and at times she includes statements that do not really support her specific thesis, but to the credulous reader are further proof of a conspiracy to hide the facts.
Now, as a non-theologian, I am not very well-versed on Church history, and it is in fact a topic I don't care that much about. To some extent, I will check sources regarding her claims, especially ones that are so egregious that even I can spot them. Chances are, though, that I will fail to spot mistaken claims she makes in regard to church history.

I will criticize nested quotes as well, as her writing uses such considerable amounts of long quotations that it at times reads like a "best of" record of secondary and tertiary sources. She seldom actually engages with the texts, never pointing out flaws or mistakes in them. This far, in my reading, I've only come across one instance of engaging with a text instead of accepting it wholesale: she pointed out that the author of the relevant source was a believing Christian, and therefore possibly a bit too uncritical (irony of ironies). Other than such instances, she takes every source at face value - not really a thing one can do in a book she wants to claim to be comparable to PhD theses:  "as concerns my credentials and continuing education, I would like to consider my books Suns of God and Christ in Egypt in particular a PhD thesis in the subjects of comparative religion and astrotheology."[1]

Sources are seldom taken to task for bad methodology or tendentious claims, and for that reason I will investigate some of her sources with a skeptical mindset as well. On the other hand, she also uses the time-tested method of quote-mining, which means some of her sources only say what she claims once the context has been removed. Since I have not been able to get my hands on all her sources, and time, alas, is a finite resource, I have not been able to check every quote for quote-mining. helps a bit - many of her sources are public domain now, and some have been scanned by Google, Microsoft and so on, and are available there. 

She generally prefers old sources - a thing I do understand, given what she wants to say, but not given that she wants to be scholarly. She has to realize that methodology has developed since the time when these sources were written, that old claims have been debunked, that what scholars in the 1880s to 1930s thought is not current - several of her sources predate that time as well, especially Higgins who is a prominent source throughout The Christ Conspiracy. Sources from those times subscribed to ideas of how religion evolves that misconstrued evidence to show how Christianity was the apex of religious evolution. Her sources by and large did not buy into that model, but built their own opposite model that had just as mistaken assumptions - they posited religion as an increasingly corrupted version of an ancient perfect lore. Both models misunderstand evolution, and both are basically terribly unimaginative approaches - the devolutionary model basically turns the evolutionary model on its head, instead of coming up with any actually tenable explanation. Her sources were seldom peer-reviewed in their time, either, and thus are rife with speculation and bad reasoning. (For an example of such sources Godfrey Higgins comes to mind. An in-depth, but still incomplete look at his works, see 1, 2, 3. Another example of rather shoddy sources she uses is Karl Anderson, a 19th century astrologer. A third and fourth example are the brothers Churchward.)

A more modern source whose reliability is questionable, but whose work is referred to throughout The Christ Conspiracy is Barbara Walker, who often misunderstands what her sources claim, and uses similarly unreliable sources for her research.

As academia has worked on these things methodology has been refined and mistaken interpretations of old evidence have been debunked. Alas, Murdock does not care to keep up with sound methodology.

There is one type of fallacious claim she likes making again and again, even in contexts where they are red herrings. These are fallacies of an etymological nature, and therefore, I've decided to gather an overview of the types of mistakes she makes in one separate postThere also is one chapter brim-ful with this kind of mistake. I fear many readers of her books may be very confused as to how etymology works, what it means for a word to have a certain etymology, or how etymologies are researched. I will go into some detail on that particular topic in separate posts. 

Alas, her sources too tend to make the same kind of mistakes, and thus, I will deal with mistaken claims in the quoted works simultaneously with mistakes in her own book. In fact, it seems she has been rather clever when it comes to this: very seldom she makes a factual claim that is (verifiably) wrong. Very often, she lets others make them for her!

Although I do not subscribe entirely to the sentiment she quotes from Wheless, it bears repeating:
"... If the Gospel tales were true, why should God need pious lies to give them credit? Lies and forgeries are only needed to bolster up falsehood: "Nothing stands in need of lying but a lie"". [2, 3]
The amount of falsehoods used to prop up her claims should be taken as an indication as to the veracity of her claims. Alternatively, we realize that the number of falsehood used to prop up something does not necessarily make it false - it is trivial to make up a falsehood with which to prop up a truth.

Now, I am no Christian. Nor have I been for over ten years. I dislike many - possibly even most - explicitly Christian beliefs. However, I do not believe fabrication is a thing we should take to when trying to debunk Christianity. This, alas, is what D.M Murdock participates in - intentionally or not. As a person with some kind of integrity, I feel I have to point out and debunk the false claims made in her books, and make Christianity's opponents less likely to be misled by her. Just because an argument against something sounds persuasive, the argument is not necessarily correct. Christianity can be wrong without her arguments. In fact, I am convinced Christianity is wrong without believing particularly many of Murdock's claims, and I am certain that we can argue against Christianity from a stronger position if we refrain from using her false claims, as well as other false claims.

I write this, in part, because I know how frustrating it is to face someone whose view of the world is - to say it kindly - fanciful, in part because with sources like her, atheists arguing against Christians will deservedly lose whatever debates they get themselves into if their Christian opponents are even reasonably well educated. 

When some claim of hers almost gets it right and can be corrected - and in its corrected form can be used against Christianity (or is a reasonable fact for other reasons), I will point this out. I will also point out what bits she does get right in fields about which I dare to make such comments.

POSTSCRIPT: On December 26, 2015, D.M. Murdock passed away after having battled cancer for a while. Although I have written critically of her works and claims, I held no grudge against her as a person, and am saddened that she had to face such a terrible and early end. Her works improved throughout her career, and had she seen a full lifespan, she could even have produced works of lasting value.

[1] D.M. Murdock, (retrieved 9.20.2012)
[2] D.M Murdock, The Christ Conspiracy The Greatest Story Every Sold, chapter 3. The Holy Forgery Mill
[3] Wheless, Forgery in Christianity, p. 109