Tuesday, December 14, 2010

No Star of Bethlehem--Thus Spake Zarathustra

In a previous post, I began a critique of one recent attempt to explain the Star of Bethlehem as a natural phenomenon, namely a comet. There I showed that in the land in which the Magi were likely to have emerged from, comets, like in most all other cultures, are considered evil omens.

However, one should ask what we know about the Magi and what we know about their interests in astrology. After all, if we are trying to figure out what would have been interesting in the skies to these eastern sages, we need to know what they thought of events in the heavens.

Firstly, the term magos in the Roman world would have meant something other than the peoples of Persia, and it was often used for astrologers in general or various diviners or magicians. In fact, our term 'magic' is derivative of the Greco-Roman term. Also, Christian figures such as Justin Martyr stated that the Magi were from Arabia. Now, this may have been because of his understanding of Isaiah 60, where gifts brought to the Jewish king by various members of regions close to the Holy Land are mentioned, along with a great light. However, Matthew seems to imply that the Magi are in fact from the Parthian Empire. Firstly, the term magos appears in only one book in the Greek Old Testament, in the Book of Daniel. Thus, a reader living in an environment that was dedicated to the holiness and importance of the OT would place the Greek term in the context of eastern soothsayers from the Babylonian Empire. Furthermore, Matthew calls them magi "from the East", which would point in the direction of Babylonia/Persia far more than to Arabia, and this would also distinguish the Magi from the hucksters of the time in Imperial Rome. Thus, it
seems best to think of these Magi as the ones mentioned from the East, especially as mentioned by figures such as Herodotus and Strabo.

Now, the magi were the priests of the Zoroastrian faith, one that is considered even more ancient than that of the Hebrews (Mary Boyce placed the prophet Zoroaster in about 1200 BCE). Also, the Zoroastrians had a cosmic dualistic theology, that there were two
principle gods, Ahura Mazda (the good), and Ahriman (the evil). These are the Avestan names of the deities, and later languages would show modification in the names (compar YHWH to Jehovah). Also, most all our texts for the faith come in later centuries and didn't reach the form we know them until the Sassanian period. Nonetheless, we can learn a fair bit about their beliefs from their texts, along with comparing classical sources, though we must be cautious concerning their quality.

Now, what do we know about Zoroastrian astrological beliefs? (My discussion here is primarily based on that of Gerard Mussies, “Some Astrological Presuppositions of Matthew 2: Oriental, Classical and Rabbinical Parallels” in van der Horst, Aspects of Religious Contact and Conflict in the Ancient World, pp. 25-44.)

From what we can gather, firstly, Greek astrological methods did not become well-known in Persia until the Sassanian period, especially under leaders such as Shapur I who instituted programs to gather and translate Greek and Indian scientific works, namely in areas such as astronomy and astrology. That this translation effort in Pahlavi does not come to be until this time suggests a lack of interest in the sort of astrology one finds in the works of Ptolemy. This of course does much to harm the theories of researchers such as Michael Molnar who depend on their interpretation of horoscopes using Greek treatises. But what is more damning is what Zoroastrians had to say about the main edifice of astrology: the planets.

According to the preserved texts, in the beginning Ahura Mazda had the stars, Sun, and Moon as stationary objects giving off their light, a sign of their purity. Also important where the constellations, especially those of the zodiac. However, Ahriman corrupted the heavens as much as he could, and caused some of the bodies in the sky to move and attack the other uncorrupted bodies. Thus the planets, the wandering stars, were evil, the product of the Evil One. Along with the the five classical planets were the eclipsed Sun and Moon (the normal Sun and Moon were still good), the comet Mush Parig, and the lunar nodes called Goshihr. The key thing is that changing bodies were the corrupted, which those that were regular such as the stars and the normal course of the Sun and Moon were pure and good.

Thus we see in the holy texts a very negative view of the planets. In other texts, we find Zoroaster himself debating with Babylonian scholars about the meaning of heavenly bodies, which implies the debate going on in Sassanid Persia rather than an historical recollection--this of it as a sort of WWJD story, but instead WWZD. We also get a sense for how late this debate is because the most ancient texts, the Avesta, speaks only of major, bright stars such as Sirius, along with the Sun and Moon. The planets are not mentioned until this derivative literature is produced which is from the 3rd century CE or later. There is also no direct evidence of astrological knowledge in earlier periods, and indirect evidence is not persuasive.

What this means is that the sort of object that Matthew describes, one that moves and stops, even a comet or planet, would be considered evil. It is also likely that a supernova would be ominous because of its unpredictability. The only sort of astrology practiced by the Zoroastrian priesthood was most primitive, even when compared to what the Babylonians had done in the Enuma Anu Enlil. Thus, it would be inappropriate to call the Magi 'astrologers' as they would not have cast horoscopes or done judicial astrology. In other words, Matthew's Magi were not the right people to be interpreting the heavens.

This is a major wrench in the works for all attempts to identify the Star because any configuration of planets would be baleful to the magi, and similarly for comets or most anything else considered to be the Star of Bethlehem. Later Zoroastrians would adopt Greco-Indian astrology and make their own innovations, such as the great conjunction system of world history, but all this is centuries too late. This also goes against the historicity of Matthew's tale since his choice of astrologically-minded people is incorrect. However, since it is more likely Matthew was trying to evoke the magi of Daniel, it is likely why he chose the term; his purpose is literary, not historical, as future posts will demonstrate.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

A Savior is Born!

Tis the Season, and how about a reason to be jolly?

For on Christmas Night, to us a Savior is born!

Oh, sorry about the typo. A Saver is born. And isn't that really what Christmas is all about? Take it from the Wise Men.

Strangely enough, I'm still betting the manger has a PS3. After all, when I think baby Jesus, I think Castlevania.

Friday, November 12, 2010

The SoB as a Comet?

More than a year ago I came across the webpage of a researcher on the Star of Bethlehem (SoB), James Sentell. I had written a bit in response to him, and we had some email exchanges. In particular I found fault in his efforts to explain the language of Matthew using the work of a Jesuit astronomer, Gustav Teres. This source was a problem because he said things that were just linguistically absurd, such as the verb proago in Matt 2:9 was in the aorist imperfect tense, a conflation to two different past tenses that is logically impossible. After some back and forth, he had shut down his website because he was helping in create a planetarium show in Europe and had signed off the rights to his work. By the looks of it he had been researching the subject for some time and had been in contact with various researchers concerning the Star.

Recently it appears that Mr. Sentell has started a new website on the subject (he also on another page discusses the Red Sirius mystery), and he emailed me for two things. One was permission to quote a couple of paragraphs from my S&T article (okay by me) and if I wanted to make any critical remarks in some sort of open forum. I wish to make my comments here.

While there are plenty of things I will want to discuss, for this post I will stick to one point, and in a later post will examine other aspects of the issue and why I disagree with Mr. Sentell's conclusions. I think it is worth-while to do this back-and-forth with this particular person because he has shown to be both welcoming of criticism and responsive. For example, though he still sights Teres in his bibliography, he does not rely on his linguistic "arguments". As such, I know I am talking to a person, not a wall or dogma. Some of his rhetoric may be a bit cutting, but this is the Internet; without drama, all we would have is E-bay and porn.

In this post, I want to talk about the idea that the Star of Bethlehem could have been a comet. There are probably three major contenders for the Star that use physical or astronomical theories: the planetary conjunction/alignment hypothesis; the nova/supernova hypothesis, and the comet hypothesis. There are various versions of each of these ideas. There are several conjunctions that some scholar has pointed to (Saturn-Jupiter in 7 BCE; Jupiter-Venus in 3/2 BCE; etc.), and novae have been speculated to have been in both this galaxy and the next major one. There are also multiple comets that researchers have considered: Halley's in 12 BCE, and two different ones recorded by the Chinese in 5 and 4 BCE.

Of the three major hypotheses, the comet has probably been the least popular because there are many, many examples of where comets are interpreted by ancient peoples as evil omens. Such a notion is not foreign even in the modern era. This is becomes difficult why it would make eastern sages come to worship a foreign king all due to an object that gave them "great joy" (Matt 2:10). All those that consider the comet hypothesis know this, but they speculate that perhaps the eastern Magi would have interpreted things differently in this one case.

I have seen two ways this benevolent interpreted has been argued, and one I have only seen with Mr. Sentell. His is this: the records of comets as evil come primarily from Greco-Roman sources, but the Magi were Zoroastrians. In their theology, light was good, darkness evil, so a shining object in the sky would have been a positive sign. What are his sources for this argument that Zoroastrians would have seen comets as positive signs? Nothing. He cited neither primary nor secondary sources to back up his claim, and not a single piece of scholarship is noted to support him. It is a speculation based on his understanding of the philosophy of Zoroastrian priesthood, a religion that he is cannot be said to have expert knowledge--he's no Mary Boyce.

Since Sentell provides no evidence for the proposition it is extremely vulnerable to contrary evidence. Already it is problematic that virtually all ancient sources take a negative view that comets are evil signs (see Carl Sagan, Comet, pp. 15-25). Sagan provides source not just from the West, but also from China and the Americas, so this view is hardly restricted to Greeks and Romans. We may also add to this Jewish literature which also had comets as omens (Josephus, Jewish War 6.288-91, 314-5; Sibylline Oracles 3.796-800). Moreover, much of the astrological traditions of the west were absorbed from eastern astronomers and astrologers--the Babylonians. That the Greeks would have had such a negative view of comets while the Chaldaeans thought differently would be most odd. Moreover, Babylonian texts such as the Enuma Anu Enlil and MUL.APIN and reports to Middle Eastern kings depict comets as evil signs. Later traditions in the same part of the world are also negative; in Islam, a comet was called al-Kaid, which means "the one that bring rancor". Again, such a context, even without any direct evidence, would make Sentell's assumptions worthless. His claim becomes extraordinarily, and thus requires extraordinary evidence.

But in fact there is Zoroastrian evidence, and it doesn't bode well for Sentell. Bundahishn 5 A.6-7 and Yasnas 16.8; 68.8 show the same fear of comets as these other cultures had done. In the first work, a comet named Mush Parig brings much fear and destruction; the Yasnas (or Yashnas) include prayers to counteract the evils of comets. As such, the very same concept of what comets signify is found in this most important culture. (See also Jivanji Jamshedji Modi, "An Account of Comets as given by Mahomedan Historians and as contained in the books of the Pishinigan or the Ancient Persians referred to by Abul Fazl", Asiatic Papers 2 (1917): 101f.; Encyclopedia Iranica 2.867)

Even though we had every epistemic right to discount Sentell's speculation without further analysis, we see that he is completely falsified, and thus his stance that the comet would have been a good sign is unjustified. Without a justification, that means all the other speculations concerning the comet, as well as his ephemeris for the comet of 5 BCE, fail to support his case that there was a Star of Bethlehem. This does not disprove the other theories for the Star, but there is a similar flaw: what made the Magi think that nova or conjunction was a good sign and meant "king of the Jews"?

However, as I mentioned, there is another method of justifying that comets could be seen as positive signs. This attempt does rely on ancient records, so it is this superior attempt that should be considered (Sentell cites Humphreys for justifying a comet as the Star, but for some reason does not give his evidence or argument). In the whole of the ancient Mediterranean, there are two examples of comets that were given a positive interpretation: the comet of 44 BCE at the funeral games of Julius Caesar, and the comet(s) of Mithridates VI Eupator. I will deal with these cases in detail in my future book on the subject, but for now a few things should be said here.

First, that we have a mere two examples that are positive out of the dozens of cases only demonstrates how stacked the deck is against the proposition--we can be very sure that a comet would be considered evil. It would be a logical fallacy to say that because it was possible to interpret a comet as auspicious, then a certain comet was probably so interpreted. Moreover, there are political forces at work that need to be considered. For example, the comet of 44 BCE was actually interpreted differently by the parties in Rome. Those sided with Octavian (later to become Caesar Augustus) said the comet was a positive sign, while his enemies interpreted it as evil and signifying the civil war to come. In fact, the earliest sources that sided with Octavian said the object was a "star" and did not call it a comet. (See Ramsey and Licht, The Comet of 44 B.C. and Caesar's Funeral Games for discussion.) In other words, it became politically expedient to get the heavens on one's side, and this led to such a positive interpretation of the comet. Similarly, Mithridates used the comet for propaganda purposes, but as seen on his coins he coaxed the object in other images to control what it could mean (see Ramsey, "Mithridates, the Banner of Ch'ih-Yu, and the Comet Coin", Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 99 (1999): 192-253). Most importantly, these interpretations come post factum, meaning they were seen as positive after the fact and by the side that needed it to be a positive sign. After all, Mithridates isn't going to let people think a comet seen at his ascension be interpreted that he is tyrant. However, this cannot apply to a comet at Jesus' birth because the Magi would not have such a political impulse to make such a generally negative sign become that which told them of their own future savior.

As such, from what context we have, comets are almost a certainly negative sign, and the very few times it is seen otherwise is when those in power needed the astrologers to interpret things differently. We have no basis to justify seeing a comet as what would have made the Magi think that a wonderful Jewish king was to be born and was worthy of worship. The only way to save the comet theory is to have actual evidence that the comet of 5 (or 12) BCE was seen in a positive fashion, such as it came with a favorable conjunction. However, to do this requires then showing the conjunction would be so interpreted, and that is a problem all Star theories face. It means that for any comet proponent for the Star, he or she must give a reason why the stars were telling eastern astrologers that a great king was to be born. This means they end up relying on the conjunction hypotheses anyways, such as the the great conjunctions of 7 BCE (even Humphreys needs these conjunctions to make his theory stand).

Sentell probably also realizes this to some degree, so he does try to justify why the sky was saying "Jewish King" to the Magi, but I save such arguments for a later time. However, here is the problem that any Star proponent will have when justifying either a nova or a comet. In order to get the message across that modern astronomers want, the theory will depend on how strong a case they can make for what the sky was "saying" to the Magi. This means a theory can only be as strong as the supporting astrological considerations. However, this work is mostly speculative, so it is initially not probable to be correct. A speculation can be at best 50% likely to be true; if it is consistent with background knowledge such that there is nothing that initially excludes it (i.e. Julius Caesar got his shoulder wet while crossing the Rubicon), but without evidence there is nothing that can compel us to believe its truth. So because so many of the conjunction theories and the like are full of speculations, this has a combined effect of making the theory improbable. Then applying it to another event improbably seen to be good (i.e. a comet), this makes the theory even worse. The only way to make the comet theory possible is if an astrological theory can be made that is well-based on the evidence and so strong it outdoes the initial improbability of a comet as being the Star. (Basically, this is Bayes' Theorem in action. On its use in this sort of context, see Richard Carrier, "Bayes's Theorem for Beginners" in Hoffmann, Sources of the Jesus Tradition.)

As such, if Star scholars want to save their theories, they need to focus on making a robust astrological theory, one strong enough to overcome the bias against a comet as a positive sign. Moreover, it must be more than possible, but it has to be shown to be probable, meaning it must be realized on primary records and minimizes speculation. If this can be done will be investigated at another time. Needless to say, no one has done this.

One last thing I would like to consider: the use of Origen. The third century bishop in his Contra Celsum 1.59-60 compared the Star to a comet and is the most popular ancient source used to say the Star was some sort of natural phenomenon. A few things need to be realized:

1. Origen did not say that Star was a comet. His comparison was concerning its newness and significance. In the same sentence, Origen also compared the Star to a meteor. Obviously he could not mean that the Star was a comet and a meteor, but he shows their commonality in appearance and how they can be interpreted. Also, both comets and meteors were believed by most in the ancient world to be atmospheric phenomena.
2. Origen says that there was no prophecy that said a comet would appear to signal the birth of a new king. That means that there probably was no one in the ancient world believing that comets did predict such things since Origen was so widely-read, and such a record would have been in his favor. His statement as well as the inability of any modern scholar to find a record that said something along the lines of "comet = new king" makes a strong argument that there was no such belief or prophecy.
3. In other writings, Origen shows that be believed the Star was supernatural. In his Homily on Numbers 18.3-4 he says the Star came down to the house of the Holy Family much like how the dove came upon Jesus at his baptism by John. This means that Origen did NOT think the Star was a comet, and instead thought it was a miraculous object.

These considerations take the wind out of the sails of those who use Origen to support a nova or comet hypothesis.

Star of Bethlehem Index

Because of my physics and astronomy education, along with my own studies of Jewish/Christian history and writing, I have focused a lot on the Star of Bethlehem as told in the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 2. Because of numerous posts I have made on the subject, and plans for more, I am creating an index. With time, hopefully this can be organized enough to be useful to a reader not deeply familiar with the subject. I also want to have an easy reference page for when I respond to others that research this topic as well but with whom I disagree.

Dialog with James C. Sentell:

There is also a lot of art and tradition attached to the Star:
Many traditions of the Star and Magi are told by Richard Trexler, The Journey of the Magi.

In the future, I plan to write something that belongs on a shelf rather than a blog, but one must wait for that project to be completed.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Happy Birthday, Carl Sagan

Today is the 76th birthday of famed astronomer and science enthusiast Carl Sagan, who untimely died in 1996. Fortunately, his message of the wonders of the sciences as well as general rationality and skepticism continue on.

Now, officially Carl Sagan Day is supposed to be on the Saturday before his birthday, so this makes my post "late" as it were. Nonetheless, now it just a good a time to celebrate as any other.

Here is a bit from his series Cosmos with a few updates by the uploader:

An appreciate video:

A version of his "Dragon in the Garage" story from The Demon-Haunted World:

And quite interesting, according to CNN, today was a big day for Carl on twitter:

Finally, a personal statement:

Carl, how unfortunate that I only came to know of your efforts later in my life and more unfortunately that it was after you had passed. Nonetheless, your love of the subject that I have also ventured into is more than simply appreciated by me and others. Truly you helped create a spiritualism based in the real world, from a simple picture of the Earth from a distance of six billion kilometers to the entire Cosmos TV series. The joy and beauty in this world and the idea that simply knowing what the world really is is an overwhelming experience. My spirit can soar far higher than any superstition would allow. I am amazed by a clear night sky, and all the more so because there have been those like you who have only only discovered what lies beyond, but also have brought that knowledge to more than a cadre of academics. While the Buddha is said to have brought wisdom from beyond into this world, Carl helped bring in knowledge and wisdom from an even greater beyond to us all. Thank you, and I hope your memory lasts for ages and the shoes that you have left from your journey continue to be filled.

Happy Carl Sagan Day! Now, let's get ready for Newton-mas!

Sunday, October 31, 2010

The DC Rally

I had the good fortune to have the time to go to Washington DC for the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear under the coordination of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, of the Daily Show and Colbert Report respectively. The event was simply awesome. The music was good, the weather was perfect, and the event overall was a success.

Estimates for the rally are around 215,000 people according to a CBS-funded areal survey. Being there, I can definitely say it was huge, and over 100,000 in number. The density was impressive, but then again there were places selling food, such as friend candy. If this was a normal meal, I don't think all could have fitted onto the National Mall.

The event proved to be well-organized, from the stage performances, video montages, interaction between live performer and video recorded actor, not to mention the set-up of the jumbo-trons, speakers (very good for me since I was about 2/3rds the way in the crowd from the stage), bathrooms, and getting people to the right places. Heck, getting Cat Stevens and Ozzy Osborne on the same stage was impressive enough. And the Mythbusters trying to measure the immensity of the crowd by finding out how long a "wave" at the front would move to the back and the seismological effect of everyone jumping at the same time was awesome. When they were announced as next on stage, my friend Adam and I knew it was worth the cost of coming in the first place.

And the point of the rally? I didn't care if there was no political point because I pretty much got to go to a 3-hour Daily Show. But there was a point, and one I think reasonably well made. There has been so much hyperbole in the news and politics that it becomes impossible to try to be reasonable in what should be done in any given situation. If you think your opponent is Hitler or a witch, then it is hard to compromise on something.

Unfortunately, some didn't quite get that message. PZ Myers certainly missed it, but perhaps because he admittedly didn't watch the whole thing, or perhaps even the most important parts. Also, I think PZ is reading into the rally because he sees similarities with some of the accommodationist camp to stop being so aggressive. In reality, Steward et. al. did not attack being deep-felt or impassioned about one's opinions, but the dialog that is simply loud and obnoxious rather than reasoned. For example, just because some Muslims attacked the US in 2001 does not mean all Muslims are terrorists. Even if you think there are problems with Islam or believe it has evil parts (which I do think), you don't need to say all Muslims are evil to make a point. Also, PZ is off when he says Stewart called out those on the right for their hyperbole/propaganda, but didn't name-names or particulars with liberals. In reality, the rally masters didn't use names from either side, but instead did something better: a montage of the crazy. Colbert's montage of the divisive dialog from various TV sources showed the problem. This included clips from Glen Beck and Rill O'Reilly of Fox News (conservatives) and Keith Olbermann and Ed Schultz of MSNBC (liberals). So in reality, Stewart and Colbert point to the very examples of the sorts of things that are making the discourse in America all the more difficult. So when PZ says
Once again, we have someone bravely standing up and telling the people on their own side to stop being dicks, while being vague on the names and specifics.
he is completely wrong.

Moreover, the rally was about the irrationality of what there is to worry about in the world. Again, a montage of clips from various media sources showed the size of the "fear market", such as the world destroyed by CERN, to terrorists, to sandals, to killer bees, to communists, to sandals, etc. There were also clips of various persons using blanket statements about atheists, Muslims, fundamentalist Christians, and so on, all amazingly stupid and useless in making a sensible understanding of what to do or think.

The rally was also to highlight how the media and politics was so unlike the real world. They gave a wonderful example. They showed car traffic in DC with everyone on the road making little compromises of who merges next, and how even though they are almost of every possible opinion of things they can get on through their lives through little compromises. So when someone rides the curb to get past the rest and cut off others, he is rare and scorned. Most importantly, he is not hired as an analyst. Instead, on cable TV, you don't call upon the smartest, best-informed person but the loud-mouth that brings in ratings.

So, was the rally a success? The crowd size suggests that it was more-so than Glen Beck's Rally to Restore Honor which brought in around 87,000. At more than twice the size, does that mean twice the impact? I doubt it since the message of "be sensible" is not as powerful a rallying cry as "take back America" (from what?). I really doubt there will be any changes for the upcoming election cycle, but perhaps the 2012 election period will be affected by the promotion of the values proclaimed at this rally. Maybe there will be another in the future?

Before wrapping up, I must also comment about the signs made by the various attendees. There was much creativity there. Perhaps the best I saw had a picture of Sigmund Freud and the text "So America, tell me about your mother." Brilliant. Others include "Thomas Jefferson is my co-pilot"; "Meh"; "Pancakes"; and "Answer this: How much profit is Sharpe making from all of this?"

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Scholarly Comedy

Where are the best places to get a good laugh? Comedians obviously make a buck out of being funny, but sometimes the non-professional is great as well. Of course, what one may find funny is a matter of context and taste.

For example, DarkMatter2525 on YouTube has made a good number of entertaining atheist comedy videos which also have insights into religiosity. Funny, vulgar (very NSFW), and blasphemous. Perfect!

And even scholars can make good jokes on occasion. Here is an example I just came across. Stephen C. Carlson, "The Accommodations of Joseph and Mary in Bethlehem: Καταλυμα in Luke 2.7," New Testament Studies 56 (2010): 326-42 writes about the meaning of the term often translated as "inn" when talking about the birth of Jesus in Luke 2. He refers to a 16th century scholar named Francisco Sánchez de las Brozas or El Brocense who argued that the stable scene from nativity plays was not a proper representation of what the Gospels depict. He was called before the Spanish Inquisition, no laughing matter. He was reprimanded rather than imprisoned in the end, though he would later be called before the Inquisition but died before things got well underway.

In the end, Carlson argued that the term in its context meant that Mary and Joseph didn't have enough space for a new-born in the place they were staying, apparently a home of Joseph. I am not persuaded by the argument, especially supposing Joseph had a home in Bethlehem that he just left 40 days after getting there and leaving for Nazareth. Nonetheless, Carlson notes how scholarship has come a long way since the 16th century:

"Now, nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition."

That that made it into a paper shows either that editors have a sense of humor or things are going terribly wrong in theological circles. Oh, I mean other than there not actually being a God.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Medical Facepalm of Biblical Portions

I like modern medicine. Considering things like c-sections allowed me to exist in the first place, vaccines have protected me from a large number of diseases, there is much to like. Some of the stuff out there could use work, in part because it is not scientific medicine, and sometimes anti-scientific. Therapeutic touch is one example because the only test of efficacy showed it to be worthless yet this is completely ignored by promoters, including the nurses that use it to this day.

One would hope that the peer-reviewed literature would filter out most of the things that cannot be supported by the evidence. But not always.

Via PZ (see also Aetiology), I have come across an article in Virology Journal which talks about the oldest cases of influenza in recorded history. Interesting subject and worthy of study. What's the source?

The New Testament.

Now we have gone from science to credulity. It's given away that the authors are not critical of their source when they say "The Bible describes the case of a woman with high fever cured by our Lord Jesus Christ." Our Lord Jesus Christ? That is devotional language, not a secular, scholarly way of describing the situation. It also doesn't help that the authors do not cite any biblical scholarship concerning their claims about the authenticity of the story or that Luke was a physician. Also by citing all the Synoptic Gospels, the authors of this "study" seem to think this gives three testimonies of the same story.

Let's nip this in the bud. The Gospels Mark, Matthew, and Luke are not independent witnesses. Matthew and Luke derive most of their material from Mark, and Mark was written after 70 CE, perhaps much later. The tradition that the names attached to the Gospels wrote them is late; it was until the mid-2nd century that these works were anonymous. That means that Mark did not write Mark and Luke did not write Luke. The physician Luke comes from Colossians 4:14, but even this letter of Paul is probably inauthentic. The claim that the testimony of the woman in Luke 4:38-39 comes from a doctor is thus wrong on multiple levels: we don't know who wrote this, it is derived from G. Mark, and there is nothing about a doctor Luke that is dependable.

So let's go to the original story, that in Mark 1:29-33. Both before and after this episode with the feverish woman there are healings of those with demonic possessions. So it is in the middle of this, the beginning of Jesus' ministry, that the authors of this study wish to say they have some authentic medical report. We have to ignore already the supernatural surrounding the tale in just one case.

How did Mark come to this knowledge? Usually biblical scholars figure that many or most of these stories come from an oral tradition, so what we have in Mark is at best hearsay. So we are trying to do a diagnosis based on the telephone game at best! Many scholars have more recently moved to find a great number of these stories in the Gospels to be literary creations, and the healing stories are a part of that.

Healing stories are also very common in the ancient Mediterranean world. The god Asclepius was a well-known deity that supposedly cured the sick. Isthtar/Innanna, a most ancient goddess in Babylon/Sumeria, was said to cure the sick in devotional literature. Even the emperor Vespasian was said to have healed people (Dio, Roman History 66.2).

In other words, we only have the word of Mark for this story, and supposing he did not create the story itself, at best we have decades-old hearsay, hearsay that even the Gospel of John didn't find useful to report. Heck, eve the letters of Peter didn't find this important to mention, and the woman is supposed to be Peter's mother-in-law! (Oh, but those epistles of Peter are fakes, too.)

What I find laughable is the part where the authors are supposed to declare their competing interests. Sure, I don't think they were pain to do this study (who would?), but the whole thing exists because of the credulity of the authors. I guess this got past peer-review because no one at Virology Journal does biblical studies. Who knows about the Synoptic Problem amongst the medical profession after all? Nonetheless, there should have been some critical thought here.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Crime Doesn't Pay

I will be going to the airport soon, and this not long after coming from a trans-Atlantic round-trip a couple of weeks ago. I don't mind plane rides other than it's impossible to lay back far enough to sleep well. At least that's the case in coach. A few hundred more dollars, maybe I'll enjoy a higher class seat. As long as I have a book and an occasional drink, all if fine.

But what kills me is waiting for getting on the plane. Obviously between connecting flights you need some layover time or potentially miss a flight. On my most recent round-trip, I had a seven hour layover in Chicago. I knew that going in, but the plane had mechanical problems. This added another two hours or so of waiting. This waiting period became longer than the actual flight! You can't read anything that long without your eyes burning out. And with $9 crappy beer in a plastic cup, it's hard to make the time go well.

It almost feels criminal, and in fact I think it is. The airports are literally killing. Killing time.

The shear level of chronocide is astounding. There has to be a better way. Unfortunately, with the complexity of the machines involved and the large numbers of people to operate and who need to travel, it's hard to get past the problem. Other than everyone gets flying cars or teleporters, I don't know what can solve this.

What can make mass transit more efficient?

I can think of one thing: make chronocide criminal. That is, if you have to wait longer for a plane than you should, that should be compensated financially. Perhaps this will give an incentive to airlines to find ways of minimizing delays. Inter-airline competition obviously has not eliminated such delays, probably since all airlines are willing to accept delays and so creates a plateau of wasted time no one can avoid. But if chronocide becomes too expensive for airports and airlines, maybe that could change it.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Give me Liberty, and Give me a Break

Libertarianism: great idea, or greatest idea? It has a romantic quality to it, with an emphasis on individuality and the belief that each of us working it out for ourselves will make us all better. This latter belief is perhaps best captured in the concept of free market economics. The more the government is willing to get out of the way, the better. Let enterprising individuals do things, from starting a small business to teaching our children.

And like most romantic ideas, it can be rather naive. For example, there was the recent spat when Rand Paul, son of Ron Paul (and named after Ayn Rand?), stated that the government should not force restaurants to not segregate due to race. The journalist John Stossel even stated that the free market would have taken care of racist businesses. After all, he (nor Paul) would want to do business in a racist institution.

Now just think about that claim. The free market would get rid of racism, at least overt, public racism in business. If that is the case, then why is it that businesses had racist policies for centuries until the 1960s when the federal government finally stepped in to make this illegal? How naive is it to say that that is what the free market would have done when it failed to do so given 100 years after the American civil war. Perhaps there were racist businesses because most people were actually racist? Take for example the situation in 1930s Germany. If you were a restaurant that served both Caucasian Germans and Jews, the white customers would be appalled to have to eat at the same place as those terrible people (horrible in their minds). Antisemitism has a long history, and what helped make it uncouth was not free markets.

In fact, free markets could very well have allowed racism and antisemitism to last. After all, if you are continuously divided from those you see as inferior, there will be nothing to deter you in that belief. Moreover, if you frequent places that have such racist policies, you are most likely to absorb this and pass it off to others, including your children. Only by some force breaking the cycle can it be possible to get away from racism. And once broken, then racism withers and no one wants to support it. The reason Stossel or Paul would not go to such a restaurant today is because they live after a time when it was socially acceptable.

And that is the problem with libertarianism. It pretends things about societies that are simply wrong. For one thing, people are not simply rational agents that constantly figure out what is best for them. Heck, we make the wrong decisions all the time, even when the correct information is given. This is also a problem for economists that blindly and dogmatically follow Adam Smith's invisible hand. Obviously Smith had insights, but his model was ultimately flawed and professional economists need to admit this.

Unfortunately, the naivete of libertarian economics is common in academia even when the evidence is there, staring them in the faces. Check out this special from Nova: Mind Over Money. When professors at the University of Chicago can be as dogmatic as seen there, no wonder a skewed version of reality reaches the public at large.

Though I like some of the propositions of the libertarians, especially when it comes to minimizing government intrusions into private matters and the maximization of freedom, there needs to be some realizations about how people and groups of people actually behave. Rand Paul has even stated that if everyone were good Christians there would be no need for laws. After all, it's not like there have ever been Christians committing crimes or starting wars or abusing children or...

We need to get real here. The loose goal of having as much individual freedom as possible is worthy of admiration, but the laissez-faire approach to governement is a failed strategy. Sure politicians can be complete doofuses, mob mentiality is not the antidote. Heck, mob mentality can lead politicians to do stupid things, such as send us to war. There is obviously a middle ground between a libertarianism as close to anarchy as possible and hyper-communism. I don't know yet where I will fall in this political spectrum (I often vote Democrat, but not always), but I know that these extremes, especially the popular libertarianism today of Beck, Palin, Stossel, Paul, and others is all too often naive and even hypocritical (i.e. the government preventing abortions, monitoring for illegal immigrants, going to war offensively, making the US a Christian nation).

When it comes to spectra, this one is perhaps useful in categorizing libertarians.

Indeed, if you have an overly-simplistic political stance, prepare to look silly.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Happy M-Day--Drawing Muhammad

Today, May 20th, has "officially" been declared Everybody Draw Muhammad day. The idea has been sparked because of the recent flare-up over the censorship at Comedy Central when the popular show South Park wanted to depict the prophet of Islam or at least joke about the censorship of any depiction of him. After a website posted a sort of death threat if the creators of the show actually revealed Muhammad, Comedy Central went crazy on censorship, bleeping out the very name of Muhammad... er, I mean *********, and bleeping out the monologue that gives the show a sense of morality, at least more so than, say, Two and a Half Men.

This is of course also in response to what had happened after the Danish cartoon incident a few years ago. Even now those cartoonists have to worry about their very lives and have been attacked on multiple occasions. So Comedy Central, after seeing what had happened before did not allow Trey and Matt to do what they wanted.

Then again, South Park had already done this. Back in 2001, ******** was featured in an episode. As far as I know, no one was killed or attacked because of this. Oh, and now Comedy Central has blocked that episode from being viewed on its associated websites.

All of this goes against an almost sacred doctrine in the West, that of Freedom of Speech. By declaring "blasphemy" all of the sudden Islam and its founder are off limits. Well, it's more than shouting. It was in part because of riots, murders, and further threats of violence, all in the name of the religion of peace. It's hypocritical if networks such as Comedy Central allow depictions of Jesus and Buddha, especially in a mocking fashion, but not Muhammad...oh, sorry, but not *********. And yet in the very episode that was censored Jesus watches porn and Buddha does lines of coke. If you didn't get the point of why they did these things, then you didn't really watch the episode. Even with the censorship, the purpose is all too clear.

So, to make up for the self-castration by censorship that major networks have done, it is up to regular folks to proudly depict a major religious figure. Today we draw MUHAMMAD.

Why do this? Simply to insult?

Perhaps for some, this will be the case. The recent videos of Thunderf00t on YouTube suggest that. However, I see a very important reason that is beyond petty blasphemies or mockeries. If thousands stand up and do the thing that so many mobs complain about, the power of the mod will be undone. If threats are made idol and anger begets more or what is undesired, the vehicle of violence will be ripped of its fuel and die on the side of the road. Not all can be attacked, and with so many targets it will overwhelm those that decry free expression all that will happen is tails will go between legs and the stupidly proud mobsters will cower away.

Already the effect is felt. Pakistan has banned access to Facebook because of a group promoting the depiction of the prophet. An entire nation is supposed to be afraid of cartoons now? They have to block one of the largest peer-2-peer networking sights in the world? Well, perhaps once they find out that you can Google images of the prophet they will have to ban the Internet. Yeah, I'm sure abandoning modern technology is the way to go forward and become a first-world nation. With nukes. (Crap.)
(UPDATE: Now YouTube has been blocked in Pakistan!)

Shall I draw Muhammad and potential put my livelihood at risk? No. Not because of fear of violence. Rather, I just suck at art.

Instead, how about letting real artists show us the prophet. In fact, how about Muslims drawing Muhammad?

This is from a 15th century leaflet, depicting the prophet being called upon by the angel Gabriel to speak of the word of Allah.

How could a Muslim possibly depict the prophet? Isn't that against the faith? Is this kosher?

(Note: the Wikipedia page on the subject is very good, especially concerning the response on the editors of the site to those that wished to remove images of Muhammad on the "Depictions of Muhammad" page.)

If you turn to the Qur'an, there is nothing about not being allowed to draw a picture of the prophet. It does not allow idolatry (Sura 21:52-4), similar to that found in Judaism and Christianity. Yet in these religions there are plenty of depictions of Jesus, Moses, etc. Occasionally there are puritans, such as, well, the Puritans that not only forbade the celebration of Christmas and birthdays, but even stain-glass windows in churches.

Now, even non-believers can appreciate the glories of medieval architecture in cathedrals. The minsters of England, Notre Dame of Paris, and so on are beautiful in their own right, even if the religion itself has an ugly side. Similarly, a mosque is marvelous when well-built, and the above piece of art is also masterful.

Yet some Muslims would rather put this page to the torch. In fact, many old Persian pieces of art showing Muhammad were destroyed in the middle of the last millennium. As far as I am concerned, drawing Muhammad is not anti-religious; rather, it is both pro-free speech and pro-art. Why not fill the world with the beautiful? Why destroy that which was made with devotion, especially when it is devotion to your more glorified figures?

It may be the case that South Park's Muhammad is not as masterful as others, but it is not revolting either.

A prophet that can shoot fire from his hands? And has nice threads? I'll sign up!

Oh, but no, this is too much for some. What possible basis can there be for this apparent displeasure with any drawn image of Muhammad?

Since the problem in this case does not stem from the holy book, instead you must look to the traditional literature, the Hadith. These are works that claim a basis in tradition going back to the early days of Islam. And they are about a dime a dozen. Not all hadiths are considered canonical, and historians doubt a better number of their contents. Nonetheless, some of these are held in high regard by Muslim scholars, much like the Talmud in Judaism or the apostolic fathers in Catholicism.

In one of these traditions, it is inappropriate to draw any living creature. Some go so far to ban the painting of anything (Sahih Bukhari, Volume 9, Book 93, Number 648; Sahih Muslim, 24, 5272)! No art at all? Well, that is much like the Taliban's policies, which include the complete removal of music from life. But why on earth remove art from life? From what I can tell, the theological idea is that it is boastful for the human to depict the world that Allah created and call what you had done your own creation. In the first of the cited hadiths, Allah calls the artist unjust and challenges them to create the smallest of things. And so, in the Hanafi school of law, a part of Sunni Islamic world, forbids all depictions of animals and humans.

What could be more anti-human than the walling off of humanities creativity in rendering the world around us. These fundamentalist imams and their like which to starve us off of all the created world in order to focus on their deity and rituals. This is the most strident stand against humanist values, deploring what abilities we have in order to shut out the very thing so worth exploring. It is the death of the soul for the sake of "saving" it. One may cut off a limb to avoid a more serious sickness, but this is a lobotomy as deep into the psyche as possible.

But then why are the Muslims only crying about images of Muhammad when even pictures of people or animals is so terrible? There is one reason that I can see, and that is when these complaints are made Westerners back down and cower to these demands. That weakness has allowed the tyrannical misanthropy of cowards who could not possibly persuade by reason to cripple some of the most important rights in the democratic world. Also, the prevention of depictions of Muhammad stave off criticisms of the religion he represents; if you fear to as much as draw him, do you really have the courage to spit at his beliefs or chide his philosophy?

This is about power, and I for one shall not yield to such barbaric hatred of the human condition. Not only shall I put up pictures of people and places, cattle and the cosmos, I shall put up the image of the prophet Muhammad and the various prophets sacred to the major religions of the world. Not to insult, not to harass, but to empower the human spirit, to let it soar no matter what weights some philistine wants to place on its wings.

The religion of Islam has done much that is vile, but I shall oppose it with the beautiful and of its own creation. Let these fools who prefer medieval thinking to return to caves with their head in the desert sand. Let them hide from the wonders of the universe and the minds that inhabit it, the free minds that will not be shackled by superstition and fear. Let their timidity be writ large as their own symbols of religion destroy them.


Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Liar, Liar, Faith on Fire

The news of the continuing Catholic priest sexual abuse scandal is rather unending and new facts about what certain figures did and did not do, what they knew and when they knew it, and what the current authorities are planning to do about these issues. There is so much scandal here it makes Nixon look insignificant. And the scale only increases and stories of abuse are found in most every continent.

What kind of credibility can such an organization have when it comes to cases of morality and public policy? When it comes right down to it, the Catholic hierarchy has proven they don't care about morals, but about their power. One need only consider medieval history with its crusades and inquisitions to gain lands and break resistance against the authority of the Pope.

And of course, there is lying for power. Recently, the Pope made a pilgrimage to the Shroud of Turin. This is a well-demonstrated medieval fake, yet
He said that keeping up that hope is the message of the Shroud of Turin, in which disciples see their sufferings "mirrored" in the suffering of Christ, CNA reported.
The shroud is a message of hope, mirroring the suffering of Christ? How is a known forgery, produced in order to bilk people of their money a symbol of hope? It's a symbol of corruption and greed, and the Pope wishes to use it as a source of religious power. He wants to use a lie, a proved lie at that, as justification for faith.

If your faith is dependent upon medieval lies, you have another thing coming.

Then again, there is a long history of using lies to get people to believe what they want you to in the Christian tradition. For example, Eusebius, a Christian historian in the fourth century, believed that telling falsehood was good for the state. Eusebius is also one to use forged documents for his points, such as letters from Jesus (History of the Church, 1.13), and he may be the creator of the testimony of Jesus in Josephus (the Testimonium Flavianum).

Apparently, that ninth commandment is not so unbreakable, at least in a long line of tradition by an organization that now tries its best to cover up the molestation of children by its priests, silenced by its bishops and cardinals, and now one of those cardinals is pope. I guess when your system is this corrupt, veneration of false idols is hardly a problem.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Paul and the Sayings of Jesus

Recently there has been a considerable smattering of arguments concerning the very existence of Jesus, mostly with a university professor of religion, James McGrath. I have followed some of the back and forth in these battles between McGrath and Neil Godfrey and Thomas Verenna. I have preferred the latter's interactions, especially since he provides lots of good references in his posts. However, one item in a comment on a post by Godfrey got me thinking.

This concerns a passage in 1 Corinthians 7:10. This is a statement concerning divorce amongst Christians converts, namely in Corinth.
To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. (NIV)
Note that the NIV is not necessarily the best translation, but it has some of the easiest prose to follow. Nonetheless, the exact translation of the verse is not of concern. The point is that Paul says that he has a commandment from the Lord concerning the nature of divorce. This is taken as Paul referring to a teaching of Jesus, and so Paul must think Jesus was a person giving such advice. The advice on divorce should have something to do with that found in the Gospels, namely in Mark 10. There Jesus says that a man that divorces and marries another woman commits adultery, and similarly with the woman. A similar sentiment is found in Matthew 5. However, there the simple act of getting a divorce makes the woman an adulteress. Also importantly, this is to be in contrast to Deuteronomy 24:1 which gives the ability to divorce.

So, first note that if Matthew has the original saying of Jesus, it doesn't fit the Pauline version very well. Paul does not say that the mere act of divorcing makes one party an adulterer. In the very next verse
But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife.
Now the divorce can happen, but the woman can remarry only one person. So, perhaps we should assume that the Markan version is the older and Matthew has made the condition stronger. Also, Matthew is dependent on Mark, so this appears to be Matthew taking liberty with the text.

However, Jesus in Mark does not simply say that he is the authority in this matter, and therefore you must listen to him. Rather, Jesus quotes the Old Testament for the proclamation that divorce should not be done. In particular Jesus uses Genesis to say that men and women were designed by God to join together and not be separated. Further, Mark says that no man can separate man and woman. This runs contrary to Paul's version as well; Paul allows there to be separation, but Mark says that no man can make this possible. So Mark and Paul are not in agreement.

Now, does Paul need to be saying that Jesus spoke this commandment in a historical time frame? Paul often uses scripture to back up his position, and he may very well believe that his advice is based on his reading of the Old Testament. For example, Malachi 2 gives a strong pronouncement from God against divorce, in particular saying he hates it. The LXX of Malachi 2:16 says this was spoken by the lord (kurios), the same word used by Paul in 1 Cor 7:10.

So a pronouncement from Jesus in the flesh is not necessary for Paul to claim a commandment from on high about divorce. This does not mean that Paul is not referring to Jesus; I only claim is that it is not a necessary conclusion. On the other hand, what is probable? Considering that Paul's understanding of what Jesus said is significantly different from what is recorded in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew, this gives no reason to think they refer to a recorded source by the Galilean prophet. Further, Mark has Jesus make a scriptural argument, while Matthew uses the force of Jesus' say-so. It looks like the situation is evolving from theological argument amongst the Christians to dictate by Jesus himself. Jesus originally in Mark quotes scripture, and to use the maxim of Bultmann, who remembers the great man quoting somebody else? Worse yet, Luke and John drop this teaching of Jesus; if it went back to the founder, why did Luke think it wasn't worth repeating? He was using Mark, so apparently Luke doesn't have the same problem with divorce; can this really be the case if this is what the very Son of God actually said in history? If instead the commandment was a determination from the Old Testament and revelation, perhaps then Luke's community didn't buy the scriptural argument; that makes a lot more sense than Luke denying the authority of God on earth! If Mark and Paul are only making arguments based on their understanding of the Old Testament or their personal, subjective impressions of the religion, then Luke coming to a different conclusion makes plenty of sense. This becomes significant evidence in favor of no oral tradition starting with the master.

Let us also consider how this commandment of Jesus could have been passed around. Suppose that Paul is in fact quoting his dead master. This means that the authority of Jesus' statements are sufficient to make a matter settled. This is similar for Matthew's Jesus, at least in this one case. However, Mark's Jesus requires a scriptural argument. How did Jesus get demoted from authoritative despot to exeget only to be bumped up again? The historical situation in Mark 10 is unlikely since Pharisees were not running around beyond the Jordan. This is desert land, not a place that needed priestly figures. The context is very strange. It is hard to say that this can go back to this historical situation. Matthew also places this pronouncement in the Galilee, it seems, so the details of substance and location are amiss. Very strange if this is a recollection.

Now, I have utilized the arguments of Early Doherty concerning this particular passage. This argument (#8) is that Paul can very well be claiming that his source is revelation by God/Jesus rather than an oral tradition. This can also make sense of this passage as well as 1 Cor 9:14 which also says that the Lord commands those that preach the gospel must make a living by the gospel. We should also take to heart what Paul says in Galatians 1:11-12 that says he received his gospel by revelation from Jesus himself; he specifically says that no man taught him these things. This works against the notion that Paul learned about what Jesus said from other apostles, and instead he suggests that his information comes from revelation and scripture.

So, the phrase in Paul alone does not need to indicate that Paul is quoting a historical Jesus, and moreover Paul suggests he gained his knowledge about Jesus through revelation and scripture. Without this latter consideration, the historicist stance explains the statement by Paul about as well as the mythicist, but the extra bit from Gal 1 suggests that the mythicist reading of 1 Cor 7 is not strained while the historicist position requires Paul to exaggerate his claims in Galatians. McGrath often argues that the mythicists propose situations that are less probable and require more special pleading in readings of verses. In this case, it seems that this is in fact true for the historicist camp.

Note, this does not mean Jesus wasn't a historical figure just from this argument; it doesn't even establish probability in favor. What it does do is demonstrate that one can justifiably read passages in Paul that some with to use to prove Paul knew a historical Jesus figure can be validly read without ad hoc assertions that fit in the mythicist paradigm. In some ways, it actually fits better in the mythicist paradigm because of the statements in Gal 1. Nonetheless, passages such as 1 Cor 7:10 cannot be used without further justification against the mythicist case.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Women's Day at CERN

March 8th is international women's day, and the people at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, the largest particle accelerator in the world, are celebrating. This is a really worth while activity since women are underrepresented in the scientific community and inspiring events are one way to make science interesting for girls of all ages, especially the young ones.

Materials can be found here.

Mein Schatz will be one of the people in the control room for one shift. One of the activities was to have almost all the people in the control rooms be women, and I think the population will be ~80% or more women.

This is not an activity to be done because somehow women are inferior and that is why they are low in the population; believe me, in my physics department most of the girls done a better job than me it seems. These events are needed because social pressures make the world of math and science less appealing to the fairer sex. Science is not just a man's job, and that is the point. If such things can inspire girls, to let them know that there is nothing awkward about being a scientist, that is all that is needed for them to succeed.

Go Women's Day!

Friday, March 5, 2010

Such Lovely Accommodation(ist)s

"Science and religion can be accommodated."

A common claim which you probably have heard. Sure, there are plenty of examples from history where the two come into conflict. Then again, there are plenty of examples of figures that did not see a conflict with their science and their faith. That a person can believe in their religious dogma and scientific facts does not prove that the two ways of understanding the world are coherent with each other--people believe contradictory things all the time; when both have serious holds on the mind and heart of a person, then abandoning one even for the sake of removing cognitive dissonance becomes difficult to say the least.

An empirical study of the interaction between science and religion can only say so much. After all, when one believes in both ways of knowing about the world, one often is compromised for the other. Kepler certainly did great science in promoting the heliocentric model of the solar system, but his reading of the Bible had to accommodate his views of the arrangement of the heavens. Newton was one of the greatest scientists of all time, but he also felt the need to have God intervene in the workings of the solar system (an interventionism abhorred by his contemporary Leibniz), a stance that later astronomers found to be unnecessary. As famously said by Laplace concerning God and physics: "I have no need for that hypothesis."

Today, most scientists agree that God and religion has no place in determining science. Figures such as Francis Collins and Kenneth Miller are both devout Christians, and both argue against including intelligent design into the scientific framework on biology. They both actually believe in ID in some form, but not one that should be published in the peer-reviewed journals of biology. Yet reason and science can be used to demonstrate the truths of theism to these intelligent figures. Collins, for example, believes that scholarship does well in demonstrating the historicity of the acts and man of Jesus Christ, including the miracles. Miller also believes in the Resurrection.

This is the oddity I see. Both would agree that miracles are outside the bounds of science, but it seems they are out of bounds only if science dissuades one from believing.

Take the recent example of a spat between PZ Myers and Jerry Coyne with a newspaper article in which they were interviewed concerning Ken Miller. The editorial choices on the part of the reporter and newspaper certainly deserve criticism; Myers and Coyne both had positive things to say about Miller, but that apparently didn't fit the narrative that the reporter wanted. Such biasing in reporting becomes nigh on propaganda--cherry-picking the statements and facts and carrying not for contradictory statements or contexts fits the category.

What I wish to focus on is a statement by Miller himself, supposing it was accurately reproduced by the reporter. All reporters are liable to not quote a person exactly, and often nuance is something noted only after an article is printed. A simple missing indefinite article could screw up the meaning of a statement. But there doesn't seem to be much reason to suppose that is the case here. The statement in question is this:

But the cell biologist [Miller] also makes explicitly scientific arguments: maintaining, for instance, that quantum indeterminacy — the ultimately unpredictable outcome of physical events — could allow God to intervene in subtle, undetectable ways.

This sort of sly intervention, he argues, is vital to the Creator’s project: if God were to re-grow limbs for amputees, for instance — if God were to perform the sort of miracles demanded by atheists as proof of his existence — the consequences would be disastrous.

“Suppose that it was common knowledge that if you were a righteous person and of great faith and prayed deeply, all of a sudden, your limb would grow back,” he says. “That would reduce God to a kind of supranatural force . . . and by pushing the button labeled ‘prayer,’ you could accomplish anything you wanted. What would that do to moral independence?”

Are faith and science reconciled now? Let's see if things stand up to scrutiny.

Apparently, God can only intervene in such a way that his influence must be undetectable, such as at the quantum level. This seems rather parallel to parapsychologists who argue that the properties of the paranormal is that the harder you look for it, the less it exists. The effect must always somehow remain at the statistical noise level. Miller seems to also want to make God statistical noise.

Just because something is at the quantum realm does not means the effects are indeterminable. For example, physicists with the best equipment in the world (namely at CERN) cannot detect a gluon; they cannot detect a top quark or a Higgs boson. However, we can detect the predicted effects of these particles. A Higgs, for example, should decay in a particular way which can be detected with devices at CERN, such as the ATLAS and CMS detectors. We may have no direct detection of these exotic particles, but we can have indirect methods. Further, a statistical analysis is needed to demonstrate that we are not simply sifting through the noise; a confidence in findings is necessary. Just because the causes of particles cannot be individually determined does not negate the predictability of effects which can be recorded.

Even if God or any force in the universe acted at the quantum level, even if a particular action cannot be determined, such as an electron caused to move in a slightly different angle, the overarching effect should be discoverable. The effect can be investigated if one supposes God has a goal in mind; if God is trying to bring about a certain state of affairs, and such a circumstances would not develop with out intervention, then one can test against the null hypothesis. Only if the goals of God are not definable or the effects too small to be detectable can God remain hidden. But if the goals of God are not definable, when what does anyone mean by the very term "God"? If any state of affairs is compatible with the desires of this being, then there is no understanding of what God is. If a physicist declared the existence of a particle, but could not describe any of its properties then he made no prediction at all. If Miller or any theologian cannot say what properties God has or what circumstances God prefers, then there is no concept to be understood. Unless God can be distinguished between no-God, the null hypothesis, then there is no "God" to talk about.

Besides, having God interact at the quantum level does not undo the fact that God is breaking the laws of physics. Just because a violation is not noticeable does not mean it is not a violation. Just because a rape victim does not report the incident does not mean her rights were not violated. Similarly, if God is going to the subatomic realm to give or take momentum from a particle, even if undetectable, this is still a violation of conservation of momentum; any intervention is a change of the natural state of things. Victor Stenger, a physicist himself, makes this point in his book The New Atheism.

Ultimately, Miller wants his God to perform miracles, but he wants those miracles to be scientifically safe. He is trying to make a proposition that sounds scientific but breaks the cardinal rule of the very philosophy of science: falsifiability. By protecting the interventions of God from such scrutiny he is in the same boat as all pseudo-scientists.

This is also apparent in his excuse for why God doesn't regrow the limbs of amputees. If such a God existed that would regrow limbs and does not, that's a disproved God claim.

However, Miller gives a more philosophical reason why God does not answer prayers for the delimbed. If God did answer prayers such as these, this would take away our moral independence, God now just some supranatural force. Perhaps this makes more sense if prayers could get you anything you wanted, but that is Miller's re-characterization of the problem. The issue that God will do anything at request, but that God does nothing upon request. Every time prayer is properly tested it if found to be no more helpful that nothing, and perhaps even worse than nothing. The problem isn't God doesn't answer all prayers, it's that God doesn't answer prayers any better than chance. Like George Carlin suggested, you might as well pray to Joe Pesci because it's just as likely to happen.

Moreover, Miller does believe that God is a supranatural force, one that acts at the quantum level. Miller thus contradicts himself in no time flat.

What is more hypocritical is that the God Miller believes in has done supernatural actions in the past. Jesus of the New Testament does cure the sick, the blind, and so on. Did their moral independence dry up, or does their self-determination not matter? What about the very unnatural return of Jesus from the dead? And as for loosing moral independence, if you believe that you will be resurrected from the dead to go to heaven simply by believing in the Nicene Creed (remember, Miller is a Roman Catholic), does not that belief remove the will to help the sick if you think they will be fixed up anyways after the Second Coming? All Miller can do is make the miracles happen later instead of now. And what happens to moral independence in heaven, again which Mill believes in? Will there be suffering and limbless souls as well? This stance is simply a cop-out for why prayers fails.

This should also be discomforting to the religious person that does have faith in prayer. Many people do think God answers prayers, and the New Testament makes clear that faith in God does bring about healing (cf. Matt 15, esp. v. 28). So, like all accommodationists, Miller has to discredit some aspect of the faith in order to reconcile it will his philosophy. Miller does not have the faith the size of a mustard seed, but he does have the rationalization of a mountain. Perhaps this is why the strongly religious and irreligious are not moved.

Ultimately, I think the entire stance of Miller can be made much less verbose without the loose of understanding: "God works in mysterious ways." To me, this is unfortunately equivalent to "I have no idea what's goin' on." "God" becomes just a word with psychological baggage for the adherent. Most people come to believe in the mysterious for not-so-smart reasons, and then those beliefs are rationalized as much as possible. Eventually the cognitive dissonance becomes unbearable to many, including one listening to these rationalizations.

This is not to say that there is no argument to be made for the existence of God. Miller and others bring up the fine-tuning of the constants of the universe for life. It is a scientific argument and one that requires research; it is more than simple assertion. Even if unpersuasive, such as argument is a million times better than the ad hoc and post hoc reasons given to reconcile the way one sees how the world works and the way we want to believe the world works.

In this test case, the ideas of science and religion are not so easily reconciled. It seems similar to the rationalizations of Pierre d'Ailly in trying to defend his Christian astrology. Bizarre arguments, such as the stars themselves have transmitted their interactions to the astrologers so that the methods are not so random in reality, are the bread and butter of desperate attempts to justify what has no real good justification. If the will to believe is strong enough, it can overcome cognitive dissonance; however, it cannot make it go away, and that is why Miller really can't win.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Holy Silly Jokes, Batman!

People have a lot of free time when they produce a way to create your own dialogue in an old comic book. But then again, how can you resist trying when all the hard work is done for you?

I couldn't.

Dare I bring up Rick James?