Monday, March 29, 2010

I should thought that one through...

Sometimes being a Bapterian1 is hard.

Once, at a Christmas party at our house I made two types of eggnog--one without and one with alcohol. I labeled them Baptist-Nog and Presbyterian-Nog. The adults knew which was which--but the one kid (fortunately there was only one) who liked eggnog--he didn't understand the distinction.

My bad.

1 A little know denomination for those confused about infant vs. believer's baptism, real presence vs. pure commemoration, etc--but who find solace in eating like a Baptist and drinking like a Presbyterian.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Pigliucci is nice 'n fluffy

I am quickly realizing that CUNY professor Massimo Pigliucci is a previously unknown (to me) vein of high quality boorish nonsense. In a post on his blog Rationally Speaking he discusses what he calls “fluffy thinking.” If his examples are a guide, then what Pigliucci means by “fluffy thinking” is actually this: if you are a scientist and you say something, anything, that might be used by those who see science and faith as compatible, then you are engaging in fluffy thinking or speaking. Before I discuss a couple of his examples, let me take a rabbit trail.

In a way Pigliucci’s “fluffy thinking” is remindful of one of the apsects of New Atheism that I find the least appealing, or the most frustrating, but one in which I lack the writing skill to do justice. But it is something like this: I believe that the New Atheists are no more devoted to rationalism than I am—even if you allow that my religion is irrational. That is, people are often irrational, and I suspect that the best you can predict is that if Richard Dawkins is irrational N times per day, then for me it is N+1—a negligible difference as N tends to a big number.

Most of my irrational activities are unrelated to religion. I have irrational private outbursts in my car. My private thoughts are filled with irrational schemes and scripted dialogs in which I always come out on top. I sometimes get angry with someone, my spouse for example, even when I know I am wrong. I could go on and on. My assumption, which might be wrong, is that in this regard I am far from unique. (And I would argue that some of my irrational tendencies, and I’m not talking about gross immorality but just responses to everyday scenarios, are at least plausibly suppressed by my religion, dropping me down to, say, N-ε, where ε << N, but again that is meaningless)

Now when the time comes, when I have to teach or do science, or am in a technical argument, I can crank up the rationality dial. Irrational thoughts and actions go into remission. I don’t flip-off a student if he does something incredibly annoying. And in research, when I get in the zone, I am almost Spock-like. Almost.

The New Atheists advocate, if you take their comments seriously, a world in which we are in the “rational zone” more or less 24-7. And some of them make claims that taken at face value suggest that they are already living in this manner or close to it.

Bullpucky. When a New Atheist argues that he tries to live a life ruled by rationality what he is really saying is nothing more than this: I am an atheist. He is patting himself on the back for that one (out of N) highly visible instance for which, for the sake of argument, we grant him a plus one in the rationality column.

Christians will be familiar with an analogy—the pious man regarding another man caught sinning overtly and bragging, at least to himself, that at least he is not as bad as that guy; in fact by comparison he’s pretty darn good.

The New Atheist utopia is a fantasy. If religion were to disappear from the United States, our daily production of irrationality would hardly burp.

Before ending this rabbit trail, let me repeat myself a bit and then hold the thought, especially regarding Pigliucci.
  • When a New Atheist says: “I am ruled by rational thinking,” what he really means is: “I am an atheist.”
  • When Pigliucci says: “this is fluffy thinking,” what he really means is: “this scientist is not on the incompatibility bandwagon.”
Back to Pigliucci and his examples of fluffy thinking.

He slams Freeman Dyson for this quote:
Science is full of mysteries. Every time we discover something, we find two more questions to ask, and so that there's no end of mysteries in science. That's what it's all about. And the same's true of religion.
Pigliucci’s critique:
what are we supposed to do with that? Besides the trivial observation that the one-for-two ratio is entirely made up (sometimes science does settle questions, and that’s the end of the line), in what sense could this possibly be like religion?
Look at the Dyson quote. If you cut it off before the last sentence then it is something that virtually any scientist might say—something Carl Sagan might have said. The sentiment “every time science solves a puzzle, two new puzzles are revealed” is ubiquitous. It doesn’t matter that it is not literally true, it suggests, quite nicely, that science is a never-ending source of new wonders and amazement. No, it’s that last sentence that converts it in Pigliucci’s mind to fluffy thinking. The first part is a red-herring, it allows Pigliucci to pretend that he is criticizing Dyson for generic fluffy thinking. But that’s a lie. He is criticizing Dyson for one thing only: he is a scientist who lacks a proper hostility toward religion.

Pigliucci does not want to argue the point on its merits so he simply gives the opposition a name: fluffy thinkers. Joy. We now have a slightly larger set: {appeaser, accomodationist,  faitheiest, fluffy thinker}.

Next up for fluffification is Paul Davies. Here Pigliucci repeats an absolutely ridiculous criticism from a previous post (which I discussed here):
Or when Paul Davies, another guy who ain’t exactly an intellectual lightweight, states “Augustine was onto this already in the fifth century because he was addressing the question that all small children like to ask, which is, What was God doing before he created the universe?,” can we ask Prof. Davies on what, exactly, was Augustine “on”? Certainly not on Einstein’s conception of time (which is the context of this quote), and more likely on nothing at all, since god is a human made construct, and therefore it is rather silly to ask what he was doing “before.”
Pigliucci doesn’t seem to mind quote-mining or question-begging, the latter of which he employs here and throughout his post. Nor does he seem to think that “duh” statements (“Certainly not on Einstein’s conception of time”) are fluffy.

At the time of my writing, one commenter on his blog, someone named Artie, had already pointed out the stupidity of this particular criticism of Davies:
Massimo, your use of Davies as an example of a fuzzy thinker is the irony of ironies.
Viewing Davies' alleged statement in the larger context of his other writings, it should be clear that he's not comparing Augustine to Einstein, and even clearer that he "knows," as even such as Augustine and little children do, that there should, if not would or could, have been a big banger around before the big bang. Even if there most probably wasn't.
Pigliucci’s response to Artie is worth reading
I'm sorry but I'm getting a little tired of people pulling the "that's not what he meant, you need to look at the broader context" excuse. No, I don't have to dig up everything Davies wrote to evaluate his statements. The quote is straight from the transcript of a radio show, which I read in its entirety, and it's hard to see what else he might have meant. If he didn't mean it, than he needs to work on his English or communication skills.
This is the classic quote-miner’s defense: But that’s what he said!

In his post, Pigliucci writes
The problem with fluffy thinking is that it sounds much more sophisticated, and it is next to impossible to criticize frontally both because it barely has anything to do with empirical evidence, and because it is hard to articulate what, exactly, these people are saying.
Pot. Kettle. Black.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Hall D Picture

Hall D is a new Experimental Hall/Detector package being built at Jefferson Lab. Previously I reported on one of my projects, ced, the event display for the CLAS 12 GeV detector in Hall B.

I was asked to develop a prototype, sharing as much software as possible, for the detector being designed and built for Hall D. This prototype (called ded)  is marching along nicely and producing some pretty 2D pictures of simulated particles traversing and depositing energy in the various detector packages. Here I provide a sample.

The scale of the picture below is about 7 meters (23 feet) wide and 3 meters (10 ft) tall. Everything in this detector is cylindrical and surrounds the beam line (the thick horizontal line through the center from left to right). This is a plane slice through the cylinders at constant azimuthal angle1. The small blue "rectangle" is the target. The table enumerates the particles that were generated in this event by modeling the physics process. The colored lines are the result of my software taking the particles in the table and "swimming" them through the detector (numerically solving the differential equation of the relativistic motion in a magnetic field.) The swum particles should match the "X's", which indicate interactions with the detector. For the most part they do--except sometimes it doesn't look quite right because of the 2D projection. Also, the swimming continues even after the particle, in the simulation, was "lost".

The incident beam (from the left) in this instance is a tagged photon beam. Tagged means we know the energy. In JLab we do not produce a photon beam directly--we produce an electron beam. Here is how we convert it to a tagged photon beam: Upstream (to the left) of this picture a magnet bends the electron beam and shakes off a photon. The photon continues down to the target. By knowing the energy of the beam, and by measuring the energy of the bent electron, and by having good timing resolution, you can tag the photon with the electron from whence it came. You can get the energy from conservation of energy. CoolnessNth.

Click to enlarge.

1 Remember 3D cylindrical coordinates? The azimuthal angle, φ, is the angle in the xy plane. In 3D polar (spherical)  coordinates physicists also call the angle in the xy plane φ, and the angle with respect to the z axis, the polar angle, we call θ. Mathematicians, confused as they often are, and still smarting because a physicist (Newton) invented calculus, screw this up. For reasons unfathomable the dear souls call the polar angle φ and the azimuthal angle θ.

Friday, March 12, 2010

The Elephant and the Electron Beam

At Jefferson Lab, where I and a lot of other nuclear physicists from around the world conduct experiments, we have a high quality, 6 GeV continuous beam electron accelerator. Such a machine is ideal for nuclear physics, and it is only going to get better--we are in the process of upgrading to twice the energy, or 12 GeV.

There are currently three experimental halls cleverly named Halls A, B, and C. Each has a specialized package of massive particle detectors. (With the upgrade a fourth hall, with the surprising name Hall D will be added.)

It is sometimes hard to explain to the layman the differences among these halls.

Here is what they have in common: the beam enters the hall an strikes a nuclear target. The reaction products emerge from the collision. The idea is to measure these outgoing particles and then reconstruct what the the nuclear forces and nuclear structure must have been that produced them.

The trade-off (there is always a trade-off) is this: you can collect all the particles at all angles but at lower resolution, or you can detect fewer particles and a smaller set of angles but at higher resolution. Or you can fall in between.

Where I conduct research is in Hall B. There we take the first approach: our detector is called a 4π detector, because 4π is the complete solid angle. (And why the surface area of a sphere is 4πR2.) We detect everything, but at lower resolution. Naturally we do the type of experiments that take advantage of our detector's 4π acceptance, and the other halls do the same with their acceptance--and the bottom line is that we complement each other.

That gets me to the point. The best way I ever heard this explained to a lay audience was using an adaptation of the story of the blind men and the elephant.

It goes like this. Suppose at Jefferson Lab our experiment's target, instead of things like helium or hydrogen, was an elephant. After the first round of experiments, the conclusions published would be:

Hall C: It is gray and rough
Hall A: It's thin and rope-like
Hall B: It's an elephant!

No, suppose a second round of experiments is performed, using the information learned in the first. The new results would be:

Hall C: It's an Indian elephant
Hall A: Subspecies Ghandis Grande
Hall B: It's an elephant!

That paints a picture of the differences--Yes?

(Stolen from Mac Mestayer)

Thursday, March 11, 2010

God and dog

The Anthropic Principle is like Rodney Dangerfield

But in truth, it deserves a little respect.

CUNY philosopher Massimo Pigliucci, of the blog Rationally Speaking doesn't know jack about the Anthropic Principle. In writing about Paul Davies, Pigliucci states:
And of course no fluffy discussion about the ultimate origins of the universe could possibly be complete without a mention of the anthropic principle. (Massimo Pigliucci)
He then quotes Davies:
For me the crucial thing is that the universe is not only beautiful and harmonious and ingeniously put together, it is also fit for life. (Paul Davies)
It is not completely clear that Davies is talking about the (weak) Anthropic Principle—maybe he is. But my bet is that he is talking about cosmological fine-tuning. The two are often confused but very different. (I plead guilty too—I confused the two in a mention in my own novel. At least I think I did. I can't remember many details about what's in that book.)

On a scale of 0-10, measuring significance of an idea to theism, cosmological fine-tuning (the idea that life is sensitive to the values of the physical constants) scores—somewhere. I would rate it fairly high—but it is sufficient for now to say that it would score something above zero.

The Anthropic Principle, by contrast, scores a dead zero. Zilch-point-oh.

If you dislike the Anthropic Principle because of religious connotations—then you do not understand the Anthropic Principle. Professor Pigliucci, it would appear, does not understand the Anthropic Principle.

In fact, there is no reason to dislike the (weak) Anthropic Principle—and Pigliucci's comment displays his ignorance. In its proper place the Anthropic Principle can be quite useful. But it must be remembered: it can be a guide—but it is never an explanation.

Using it as an explanation should be criticized. Using it as a guide—well it may not be satisfying in a purist sense—but there is nothing inherently wrong with it. Science is not above getting hints—and the Anthropic Principle can, at times, provide hints.

The (weak) Anthropic Principle merely states: science must be consistent with the fact that we carbon-based creatures are here.

It is more or less a tautology. But it has some scientific value.

There is no example better than the most famous—Hoyle's serendipitous 7.65 MeV carbon resonance. We are here, and we are made of carbon. The only place the carbon can be made is inside of stars. The nuclear chain of events, Hoyle realized, required an undiscovered carbon excited state around 7.6 MeV—otherwise we couldn't be here pondering how it is that we are here. It had to be there because we are here (the Anthropic Principle)—and sure enough it was.

Of course, the Anthropic Principle doesn't explain the resonance—it just gave a hint as to where to look. Nuclear models later explained the resonance.

To understand that the Anthropic Principle is not biased toward theism—imagine if Hoyle's use of it failed. Imagine if there was no carbon resonance at the required energy. We would then have no explanation for existence of heavy elements, required for any type of life, —other than "God Did It." The failure of the Anthropic Principle would have, at least in a political sense, been good for theism—that is at least in the twisted calculus whereby a phenomenon lacking a scientific explanation is considered a victory for theism.

Later in the same post, Pigliucci writes:
I find the anthropic principle not only philosophically untenable and scientifically silly, but an egregious example of the tendency of human beings to vastly overestimate their place in the cosmos.  (Massimo Pigliucci)
Like many others who don't know what they speak of, he is equating the Anthropic Principle with a sort of carbon chauvinism. Total nonsense.

I agree with Jerry Coyne

In the big picture. This time.

If you home school your children, use a science curriculum developed by scientists, not the ultra-liberal yahoos from Bob Jones University.

Even if you do not believe in evolution—teach your age-appropriate children evolutionary theory. That is the state of the art in biology when it comes to explaining the diversity of life. They (and you) should know what it is—even (especially) if your ultimate goal is to argue against it. In fact if you plan to argue against it, you are under an even greater ethical obligation to acquire an accurate understanding. You simply have to know that which you intend to oppose as well or better than those with whom you will argue. "God wouldn’t make us from monkeys" and "it violates the second law of thermodynamics!" don't cut it. Once again, the words of St. Augustine:
Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these [scientific] topics
John Calvin had (at least at times) a similar view. (Luther …not so much.)

I never want to listen to your whining about Richard Dawkins criticizing religion when he didn't even bother to take the time to study some rudimentary theology, if you are going to criticize evolution without studying it at least a high-school level. That deserves the old pot-kettle-black response.

And if you think that studying evolution, even if it is wrong, will test the faith of your children then you need to study the bible some more. He who is within us is mightier than he who is in the world. My sheep hear my voice. Paul quoting pagan philosophers when speaking with pagans. Etc., etc., etc.

New readers may object to my labeling the Bob Jones crowd as ultra-liberal—but in one sense they are. Traditional liberals “take liberties” with scripture by arguing: I beg your pardon! My God would never tell Joshua to kill all those innocents!—I’m excising that part from scripture! Bob Jones liberals (the legalists) are more insidious. They “take liberties” with scripture this way: Yes, God didn’t really inspire a biblical author to write instructions teaching "this, that or the other" is required/commanded of Christians to "do, not do, or believe"—but we are supremely confident that he would have, if he weren’t distracted, so we’ll supplement his word on his behalf.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Lost Comments, Sorry

Because they were causing my blog to load very s l o w l y I have abandoned the haloscan comments and reverted to blogspot. The pages are indeed loading much faster. However, I have lost the haloscan comments. I am going to see if I can export them to blogspot--but in any event I not go back to haloscan.

Sorry for the inconvenience.

UPDATE: I can export 'em. But I can't import them into blogger. Bummer, that.
UPDATE 2: I restored the haloscan comments, be left off the "recent comment" widget.
UPDATE 3: Arggh. Back to where I started. Just have to hope haloscan improves.

Coyne, through detective work, discovers heretofore well-known facts about Paul Davies

Jerry Coyne is discussing Paul Davies's arguments, which are not unlike Ken Miller's, that God uses, or perhaps uses quantum indeterminacy as his means to impose his sovereignty on the physical realm. Now personally I don't believe that—or more accurately I have no reason to believe that—but theologically speaking it is a reasonable hypothesis.

What Davies argued (or rather has argued, for some time) is this:
But when one gets to an indeterministic universe, if you allow quantum physics, then there is some sort of lassitude in the operation of these laws. There are interstices having to do with quantum certainty into which, if you want, you could insert the hand of God. So, for example, if we think of a typical quantum process as being like the roll of a die — you know, “God does not play dice,” Einstein said — well, it seems that, you know, God does play dice. Then the question is, you know, if God could load the quantum dice, this is one way of influencing what happens in the world, working through these quantum uncertainties.
Again—these arguments do not appeal me. They have a certain evolutionary-psychology "just-so" quality that I find unsatisfying. And I hate using Heisenberg as an easy explanation for anything, such as free will. (Note to philosophers: keep your hands off of quantum mechanics--it's unseemly the way you embarrass yourselves.) But that is not the issue here. The issue is Coyne's response:
Sometimes I wonder, when I hear stuff like this, if the people who say it really believe it, or if they’re only trying to reassure the nervous faithful that science really does allow for a theistic God.
I could say something similar about many of Coyne's science/faith posts. I wonder if he really believes what he writes or if he is just trying to reassure the nervous faithful that science and Christianity are incompatible?

Coyne then adds a comment that is dumb beyond all expectations:
And what if, some day, quantum “uncertainties” are shown not to be uncertain at all, but part of a deterministic process that we don’t yet understand? Where would God go then? How could He continue to influence the universe?
Now Jerry you can argue, Dawkins-like, that you don't need to study theology to criticize religion—a position that I think is supportable. But that does not extend to science. There you simply must be on firm ground. If you are going to discuss physics, then you should not attempt write above your level.

Your question, Jerry, is more than a little analogous to asking "What if we found a Precambrian rabbit? What would the biologists do then?”

In other words, if you are going to posit a potential problem for an opponent's point of view, you ought to suggest a plausible scenario if you want to be taken seriously.

Coyne then refers us, approvingly, to a blog post by CUNY philosopher Massimo Pigliucci who writes, on this same topic:
A similar problem underlies this bizarre statement by Paul Davies: “We know this [the Big Bang] is now 13.7 billion years ago. Einstein's theory of relativity says this was the origin of time. I mean, there's no time before it. And Augustine was onto this already in the fifth century because he was addressing the question that all small children like to ask, which is, ‘What was God doing before he created the universe?’” Are you serious? So Augustine gets credit for the theory of relativity because he asked the rather obvious (and totally unconnected to relativity) question of how god was spending his non-time there before time was created? (Wait, does that question even make sense?) As I said before, why do these people think they can get away with this sort of pop metaphysics just because they sport a PhD in physics? (Emphasis added.)
Pigliucci's statement is so disingenuous I can see why it appeals to Coyne, who of course is a master of such arguments. Davies is not giving Augustine credit for General Relativity, as even the author of this chowder-headed blurb must clearly understand—but apparently is nevertheless willing to lie about just to score an unearned and worthless point. What Davies is clearly and unambiguously stating is that St. Augustine addressed the theological question of "before time, what then?" long before physics gave us reason to believe that that there was indeed, so to speak, a "time before time." But Pigliucci, using Coynesian sub-logic, lies and distorts: Isn't Davies a big fat dummy! He is trying to credit Augustine with General Relativity!

Then, as if we need more, another example of Coyne's reptilian ethics we have a final oddball attack on Davies. Leaving aside the details of Davies's journey—a fascinating story that if I recall correctly begins in atheism and is still progressing, we can summarize it as:

1) Davies begins writing on the intersection of science and faith
2) Later, Davies wins a Templeton (which are given for working the science/faith interface)
3) Davies continues writing on the intersection of science and faith

Coyne casts wink-wink nod-nod aspersions on Davies because he won a Templeton for work that he was already doing. He doesn't bother to make a substantive argument that the Templeton award is, in this case, somehow improper—he simply argues that a google of “Paul Davies Templeton” demonstrates that Davies is damaged goods. And he also announces the Davies Templeton award as a discovery his sleuthing uncovered—when everybody (except Coyne) in this niche realm of faith-science already knew about it—as they already knew about Davies's quantum arguments.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Pay no attention to the adverb

I will probably teach a Sunday School on eschatology in the fall. So I have been reading some new material and looking over some old notes. And, as always when I am preparing to teach, I become sensitized to other discussions of the topic.

So the other morning I was channel surfing and hit upon a old TV preacher about to start a series on Revelation. Normaly I'd keep right on surfing. This time I stopped to listen.

What happened next--well I could have scripted it. He assured us of the importance of Revelation, how we must study it carefully, and generally gave a lot of buzz-words indicating he was going to take the literal, dispensational interpretation. He would proceed slowly and carefully and would explain everything in the difficult book.

He began with the first verse:
The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John (Rev 1:1)
Of this he pointed out, correctly, that the revelation is not John's but Jesus'. This book is our Lord telling us what would take place, he said.

Then, in spite of the promise to explain everything carefully, he moved to verse two.

Do you see the problem? He paid no attention to the adverb. This is more than a book in which Jesus tells us what would happen. It is a book in which Jesus revealed what would happen soon.

If what is described in the book has not happened, two millennia hence, then either God has changed his mind or the book is in error. Either possibility is not very appealing.

And no, I don't buy the "a day is like a thousand years" argument. While that statement is true enough, it was never intended as a blunt instrument that renders all time references meaningless. I don't believe that the word soon was inspired for no reason--that it could be any time period at all because "a day is like a thousand years." There is no way to avoid the fact that it means a short time period, not an indefinite time period.

Funny. In many cases the same apologists, when discussing  the beginning times, argue that the Hebrew yom, which really can mean an indefinite long time--must be taken as a literal 24-hour day. But then, when discussing the end times, they ignore the word soon or simply deny that soon means soon. Or that this generation means this generation. Or the clear implication that some of you will not taste death  [before these things happen] is that some will still be alive--and clearly, if it means anything, suggests a generation-like time interval after which some will be dead, and some still alive.

Those who take Revelation "literally"  take the complicated imagery literally--even though such language is used elsewhere in scripture figuratively. And then they ignore the simple, straightforward time references.

To me that is just bizarre.

Consider, for example, the apocalyptic language complete with stars falling from the sky used to describe the historic destruction of Babylon:
9 Behold, the day of the LORD comes, Cruel, with both wrath and fierce anger, To lay the land desolate; And He will destroy its sinners from it. 10 For the stars of heaven and their constellations Will not give their light; The sun will be darkened in its going forth, And the moon will not cause its light to shine. (Isa. 13:9-10) 
Therefore I will shake the heavens, And the earth will move out of her place, (Isa. 9:13).
And the destruction of Bozrah:
3 Also their slain shall be thrown out; Their stench shall rise from their corpses, And the mountains shall be melted with their blood. 4 All the host of heaven shall be dissolved, And the heavens shall be rolled up like a scroll; All their host shall fall down As the leaf falls from the vine, And as fruit falling from a fig tree. (Isa. 34:3-4)

Thursday, March 04, 2010

A Confederation of Doofuses

Jerry Coyne, always a barrel of laughs when he strays away from biology, has perhaps his most breathtakingly stupid post ever. (No small feat.) The subject of the post is to mock a Christian response to the killer whale that recently killed its trainer at Florida's Sea World. In a post entitled  Christians want orca stoned to death Coyne writes
But one group feels otherwise. The Rightly Concerned website, an arm of the religious, right-wing American Family Organization, has called for not only the execution of the orca, but death by stoning. Why? Because the Bible says so:
No Jerry, nobody is calling for the whale to be stoned.

Now I am no fan of the American Family Organization (or, for that matter, any para-church organization) but Coyne is just nuts. Read that story in full. It is unambiguous that the message was not that the animal should be stoned. The message, drawing upon bible verses quoted, was this: The first time the Orca killed it should have been destroyed. The second time, it should be destroyed and the owners should be held accountable.

You can agree or disagree—but it is neither a controversial nor a religious stand.

Now to make this a confederation of doofuses, as the title suggests, we have to include some of the choice comments from Jerry's erudite readers. Many of them deal with a misconception of literality and and the utterly fatuous, tiresome charge of cafeteria Christianity (choosing which Old Testament laws to obey and which to ignore). The latter topic has been dealt with a number of times on this blog.

Below are some of the comments, at the time of this post. Following each comment is a score from 0 to a maximum of 1.0 Coynes. All spellings are preserved from the actual comment.
Wait a second. The holey scripture says nothing about whales. Wouldn’t that be “interpretating” the bible to apply the ox rule to the whale? And isn’t interpreting the holey book, rather than taking it literally, which the source of our moral decay?

Score: 0.8 Coynes. Complete misunderstanding of the relationship between biblical interpretation and literality. Plus, it has the proper unwarranted air of intellectual superiority—essential for receiving a high score on the Absolute Coyne Scale.

This is the point. The loons who claim to be reading the Bible literally really aren’t. They’re projecting their own interpretation on the words and calling it literalism.

The law is specifically about oxen. Anyone who uses it to apply to dogs or cats or killer whales is reading something into the text that isn’t there. There is no such thing as a real Biblical literalists – just people who pretend to read the book literally while smuggling all kinds of their own personal self-projection into the text.
Score 0.83 Coynes. An even slightly more awry conception of the literal hermeneutic than the previous comment.

Besides, how do they know Yahweh didn’t make the whale kill the trainer to enact his wrathful vengeance against those who keep large, intelligent, wild animals as slaves? Oh wait, their god doesn’t condemn slavery.

“Literal” is only literal in so far as it’s convenient for their imposition of control. I’m reminded of the quote that goes something like, “It’s amazing how often the ‘will of God’ matches the will of the believer.”
Score 0.78 Coynes. An appeal to the all-encompassing "how do they know God didn't want that to happen" argument and a gratuitous (and incorrect) suggestion that God condones slavery. (Another topic dealt with at length on this blog, most recently here.)

Do these people eat pork? Do they wear clothing of mixed fabrics? Do they light fires or do any of a number things traditionally prohibited on the sabbath?
Oh, they only follow some of those hundreds of rules. Oh. Okay. Never mind.

How do they decide again? It’s all in God’s book. It takes a lot of balls/guts/hutspa to pick and choose amongst the various rules one claims were given to them by the creator of the universe who could flood or salt-pillar or bear-maul or otherwise smite them for not following. Sorry, don’t get it. How are we supposed to take their brandishing of these rules seriously when they don’t take these rules seriously themselves. Jots and tittles indeed.

Score 0.95 Coynes. Combines the unwarranted air of intellectual superiority with a signal that the commenter knows the bible better than the Christians he criticizes. The commenter should read and ponder Hebrews 7:12.

Finally, we close with an intelligent, spot-on comment:
Sorry guys, but this post contains 2 grave inaccuracies:
Firstly: The AFA doesn’t demand the whale to be stoned.
From their bible excerpt, they conclude:
“So, your animal kills somebody, your moral responsibility is to put that animal to death.“
I think it is neither fair nor accurate to claim that they demand stoning.
Score: 0.0 Coynes. Be careful though, you could be dangerously close to being declared  a faithiest.

UPDATE: Additional comment:

Somehow the desperate cry rings over the planet again:
Too many xians, too few lions!
Score: 0.94 Coynes. Jokes at our expense are more than acceptable, in fact they are welcomed. But they must be funny. This one hasn't been funny for centuries. Lacking originality or humor in your mocking of Christians will always get you a high Coyne score.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

A. H. Strong, on Evolution

There is a Christian conception of evolution, and in light of it, I propose to interpret the fall and the redemption of man. To prevent misunderstanding, I must define what I mean by evolution. Evolution is not a cause but a method. God is the cause. He is in his universe, and he is the source of all its activities with the single exception of the evil activity of the human will. When I speak of evolution as the method of God, I imply that the immanent God works by law; that this is the law of development; that God, and the old the basis of the new, and the new an outgrowth of the old. In all ordinary cases God works from within and not from without. Yet this ordinary method does not confine or limit God. He is transcendent as well as immanent. His is not simply “in all” and “through all” but he is also “above all.”

The Fall and the Redemption of Man in light of Evolution, Augustus. H. Strong, A paper read at the Baptist Congress, Buffalo NY, November 15 1898. Reprinted p. 163, Christ in Creation and Ethical Monism, Augustus. H. Strong, Roger Williams Press, Philadelphia, 1899.

From the Wikipedia entry on Agustus Strong:
Augustus Hopkins Strong (3 August 1836 – 29 November 1921) was a Baptist minister and theologian who lived in the United States during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His most influential book, Systematic Theology, proved to be a mainstay of Reformed Baptist theological education for several generations.

Hat Tip:
C. Taylor, great teacher, great friend.

Monday, March 01, 2010

More and more scientists deny the existence of God or a Higher Power

A hundred years ago, that is. These days more scientists express belief in God or a Higher Power.

Who'da thunk it?

Love those top ten lists

And the number one sign that you are a pinheaded atheist:

You think that the top ten signs you are an unthinking Christian represents reality, not a gross stereotype.

I’m guessing those who actually think this list exhibits substantive truth also have definite beliefs about what black people like to eat, how Jews do business, the thriftiness of Scots, the peacefulness of Muslims, the hygiene of the French, etc. True, sometimes people are only bigots against one group—but usually if you scratch below their lizard skin you’ll find other groups they about which they claim intellectual and/or moral superiority.

Let us examine the ten reasons:
10- You vigorously deny the existence of thousands of gods claimed by other religions, but feel outraged when someone denies the existence of your god.
Well of course we deny the existence of other gods (duh) but there is no outrage when someone denies the existence of  our god—we fully expect people to deny his existence—and of course our holy book tells us that many will deny his existence. In fact, all of us would deny him were it not for grace—so why would be outraged? It's like being outraged that the sun rises each morning.

9- You feel insulted and ‘dehumanized’ when scientists say that people evolved from lesser life forms, but you have no problem with the Biblical claim that we were created from dirt.
Hard for me, as a theistic evolutionist, to address this lie, other than to say denying evolution generally means no more than that: a denial of evolution. You must have a very high opinion of yourself if you think that your teaching something that (some of us) deny leaves us insulted or feeling dehumanized. You know about Imago Dei? Given that, it should be clear that atheists are in fact impotent when it comes to making us feel dehumanized. He who is within us is stronger--etc.

8- You laugh at polytheists, but you have no problem believing in a Trinity god.

 We do not laugh a polytheists, we disagree with them. And it is Triune God, not Trinity God. I think atheists are much better at laughing at people you disagree with than we are. Go to the atheist web sites--they are having a grand time guffawing at Christians.

7- Your face turns purple when you hear of the ‘atrocities’ attributed to Allah, but you don’t even flinch when hearing about how God/Jehovah slaughtered all the babies of Egypt in ‘Exodus’ and ordered the elimination of entire ethnic groups in ‘Joshua’—including women, children, and animals!
Oh, we flinch all right. Far from shrugging it off as you imply, we struggle mightily with the genocide in the Old Testament, and are grateful that it is a thing of the past. We know that God ordained it, we know that it was part of his redemptive plan,  we understand that, in ways that we don't understand,  it is good—but most certainly we do not read it without flinching.

6- You laugh at Hindu beliefs that deify humans, and Greek claims about god sleeping with women, but you have no problem believing that the Holy Spirit impregnated Mary, who then gave birth to a man-god who got killed, came back to life and then ascended into the sky.
There you go again. You seem to imagine we go about laughing at everyone. (Except, I bet, atheists—it seems to me that many atheists think we don’t laugh at them but are afraid of them. Which is actually funny—and does make some of us laugh. So I guess we do sometimes laugh. But at atheists, not polytheists.)

5- You are willing to spend your life looking for little loop-holes in the scientifically established age of the Earth (4.55 billion years), but you find nothing wrong with believing dates recorded by pre-historic tribesmen sitting in their tents and guessing that the Earth is a couple of generations
Conveniently neglecting, are we, that many, many Christians are Old Earth Creationists?

4- You believe that the entire population of this planet with the exception of those who share your beliefs—though excluding those in all rival sects—will spend Eternity in an infinite Hell of Suffering. And yet you consider your religion the most ‘tolerant’ and ‘loving’.
Sorry, no—we believe, as God tells us in his word, that he will have mercy upon whom he will have mercy. We are commanded to proclaim the gospel—but we do not believe that God is ever in a box about whom he cares to save. There is no ritual that you have to perform or magic incantation that you must recite--it is all God's prerogative.

3- While modern science, history, geology, biology, and physics have failed to convince you otherwise, some idiot rolling around on the floor, speaking in ‘tongues,’ may be all the evidence you need.

A) Many of us are historians, geologists, biologists and physicists. B) Many of us are cessationists who believe that gifts of the Spirit such as speaking in tongues ended with the apostolic era.

2- You define 0.01% as a “high success rate” when it comes to answered prayers. You consider that to be evidence that prayer works. And you think that the remaining 99.99% FAILURE was simply the will of God.
No—since everything that comes to pass was ordained by God, and no man can thwart his will, no prayer can ever cause God to change his mind.  We understand that--and therefore do not expect any particular  "success" rate. You do not understand the purpose of prayer (to be honest, neither do I.) But I do know this: all prayer is a success, because it represents the privilege of communicating, without fear,  with the creator of the universe.

1- You actually know a lot less than many Atheists and Agnostics do about the Bible, Christianity, and church history—but still call yourself a “Christian.”

A pervasive myth. Some Christians know less than some atheists about the bible, theology, church history, etc. But if you selected an atheist at random and a Christian at random from, say, my small, southern, Baptist church—well I’d bet the farm that it would look like Olympic hockey with my brother or sister playing the role of  Canada and the random atheist looking a bit like the Jamaican team.

Pre-trib Rapture? No thanks, I'll pass.

The vaunted pre-tribulation rapture as taught in the Left Behind eschatology (Dispensational Premillennialism) has no basis in scripture. There is no passage in the Old Testament that teaches of a pre-tribulation (or for that matter a mid-tribulation, or post-tribulation) rapture. There is no passage in the New Testament that teaches of a pre-tribulation rapture. None. Zero. Zilch.

Millions of Christians take it on faith that the pre-tribulation rapture must be easily defended by an appeal to scripture, because their pastor tells them it's true and their church elevates it to a standard of orthodoxy. But nothing could be further from the truth: there is no scriptural basis for the doctrine.

This is all part of rather strange truth: the Left Behinders pride themselves on a literal interpretation of scripture. The problem: they are in fact not very literal. Not very literal at all.

For example, the Left Behind series begins with a Russian attack on Israel, thwarted by super-natural intervention. This is supposed to be a *cough* “literal” interpretation of the attack by the enemies of Israel as related in Ezekiel 38 and 39. That attack describes bows and arrows, and concerns livestock and gold and is made possible by un-walled  Jewish cities. Well the un-walled cities fits—but seems hardly worth mentioning given that in the 21st century (surely the prophecy will be fulfilled soon! In our lifetime! Promise!) no cities are walled. But bows and arrows? These are "literally" jets and missiles? Gimme a break.

Not to mention that the fabricated connection to Russia comes from “the Prince of Rosh” of Ezekiel 38:2. But the Rosh does not even refer to a people let alone the Russians. It means head or chief—and it is used that way many times in the Old Testament. It is the same Rosh that we find in Rosh Hashanah, meaning the head of the year.

Also, the prophesy indicates only that the attack comes from the northerly direction—not necessarily that the aggressors come from a nation to the north.  

What is the attack described in Ezekiel 38 and 39? We can’t be as sure about what it is as we can be about what it isn’t (a Russian attack on Israel.) The best fit would be the Jews withstanding attacks from Persian aggressors as described in the book of Esther. There bows and arrows would mean (I know it's not very sexy)—bows and arrows. Not what they “lterally” mean to the Left Behinders: modern jet aircraft, artillery, and missiles.

Such nonsense.