Mail bag odds and ends: Which God don’t you believe in? »« Bat cruise coming

Open thread on AETV #830: Christian extended universe

Russell and Lynnea Glasser, together with a big old book of Irish Folklore. The old stuff is canon, yet the new stuff is relegated to forever be just fan fiction. What makes it less credible? One creationist caller was totally willing to take seriously the idea of giant snakes, faeries, and a really stupid devil who falls for cheap parlor tricks.


  1. maudell says

    Good show today. I like Lynnea as co-host, her intro was interesting. Her approach with the second caller was different too (though I get the sense that he hung up thinking that you guys believe in time-traveling for real… but I may be wrong).

    I must admit, I fantasized for about half a second that the schmarriage guy would ask how many species can build TVs. Half a second.

    • says

      I laughed when she did that cause, yeah, the caller was like, “You guys don’t really believe that do you.” And her dead pan delivery sold it! LOL

  2. says

    Loved the show. (although my feed froze about 3/4 of the way through. I’ll have to watch the rest later.)

    I’d never thought of Paradise Lost as fan fic before but it totally is.

    I’ve also been waiting for someone to answer “yes, I was there” to the stupid “were you there?” question. That was awesome.

  3. JT Rager says

    Loved Lynnea’s toying with the second caller. I get the feeling that most of the time the hosts want to be pretty respectful to the callers so it’s harder to call them assholes, but sometimes humor like that hits the nail on the head. Reminded me of Russel’s cosmic toaster from way back when.


  4. says

    Yeah, it comes down to trusting the guys who made the decisions about what was canonical and what wasn’t–even if, as Protestants tend to do, you ditch most of the traditional stuff about the early saints. Then you have to ask why–why do you trust that they were right (what evidence is there that the orthodox were correct and the gnostics wrong, for example), and if they were right about that, then why weren’t they right about everything–theology, christology, ontology, eschatology etc.? But most modern Christians would be totally at a loss to follow, let alone comprehend and believe most of the arguments of those fourth century Christians. Did I say fourth century? Yes, yes I did. There wasn’t even a bible really until then more than three hundred years after Jesus was dead and buried.

    • says

      I’ve always thought it odd that Protestants are so happy to accept the Catholic decision as to which books were included in the Bible and which were not. In addition the acceptance of some Catholic doctrine that is non-Biblical (like the trinity) which makes no sense. I don’t think much thought was given to either of these. I actually had someone say to me that she didn’t believe God would allow us to have an imperfect Bible. *facepalm*

      • unfogged says

        Isn’t that a pretty standard response when presented with how the bible was actually put together over centuries? It was inspired by god who guided the process to ensure that the right things ended up included.
        It’s the same core problem as with ID and religions that accept evolution — whatever the facts are the god still has to have a part in it. Logic just doesn’t work against an illogical fantasy.

      • says

        Struck me as odd too. How do they ascertain which books were god inspired and which weren’t? There are, supposedly, gospels written in the voicing of Mary Magdalene and Judas. I heard it argued, well, they didn’t author those work so they didn’t get in.

        Uhm, NONE of the gospels that are attributed to the author were written by the author…smh

      • anastasia says

        “I’ve always thought it odd that Protestants are so happy to accept the Catholic decision as to which books were included in the Bible”

        Actually, there are a number of differences between the Catholic Bible vs the Protestant Bible — about seven books worth. Also, the authorized Catholic translations are different than the Protestant translations.

        • Narf (the abdicator) says

          They’re not major books, but there are differences, yes. A lot of people hear that there are books missing from the Protestant Bible, and they start jumping at things like the Gospels. No, the New Testament is more or less the same.

          There’s also some different naming of a few of the books, in some versions. Some Bibles turn the Chronicles into 3rd and 4th Kings.

  5. LCD says

    I kinda wanted to hear what the second guy had to say about Craig Venter. Prof. V is not only a renowned geneticist, but also very established in synthetic biology: his lab put together the first artificial cell in 2010, so it would have been interesting where the caller would have taken that.

    That said, he’d still be wrong.

    (For interested parties:

      • LCD says

        Sadly, you’re likely correct. Where are all the scientifically literate creationists?!

        I doubt he’d understand the subtlety of their disagreement, which is a shame because science is interesting.

        Great show, as always!

        • Charles Insandiego says

          Per The Wiki, Vinter is an atheist:

          “Steve Kroft asked Venter on CBS’ Sixty Minutes, 21 November 2010: “Do you believe in God?” Venter replied, “No. The universe is far more wonderful.”

          • Narf (the abdicator) says

            The memetic version of Lamarckian evolution, though. Is that the Dawkins-Lamarck Effect or something along those lines?

          • julial says

            Culture isn’t biological???
            Show me sand that developed culture on its own and I’ll believe that.

            OK, I get your point Lamark’s conjectures don’t apply well to organisms per se (epigenetics notwithstanding). But what I was drawing attention to is that the underlying idea of inheritance of acquired characteristics is not dead or ill conceived. It simply applies to an arena other than the one initially put forward.

    • Corwyn says

      Interesting. In particular, I suspect that any creationist wouldn’t be too happy with another article on Dr. Venter’s site, namely:
      FIRST SELF-REPLICATING SYNTHETIC BACTERIAL CELL, in which they discuss creating a cell with a completely synthetic (i.e. man-made) genome. Is this ‘making life’? I am not sure, but it certainly is close.

      • Russell Glasser says

        Nah, they’d be thrilled with it, because they’d say “That just proves that cells can only be created with INTELLIGENT DESIGN!”

    • says

      I can tell you exactly where he was going.

      When Venter’s team created their synthetic DNA, they encoded information into it that would act as a watermark to verify that it was replicating properly.

      The caller would likely go on to say that if DNA can contain information, then that means it’s a code and all DNA must be intelligently designed. Never mind that you could encode the same information in a sequence of colored blocks, and that it was encoded in English, which is utterly unrelated to how protein synthesis (and other) instructions are encoded in DNA.

    • anastasia says

      Actually, the Venter Institute did not create the first artificial cell. They made an entirely artificial chromosome, that is, a very long artificially-constructed strand of DNA.

      The cell was preexisting and they swapped out the genome and the cell still worked — it metabolized and it self-replicated.

      This is still amazing, but there’s a lot more to a cell than the DNA. Many labs are working on various other pieces of the puzzle, such as a functional cell membrane and the hundreds of cytoplasmic components. Check Wikipedia for artificial cell and synthetic biology.

      Also, the source deoxyribonucleotides for the DNA were ‘made’ by living E. coli bacteria in a lab. Science does know how to chemically synthesize RNA nucleotides (since 2009), and DNA nucleotides from them, but it is currently much more expensive to do it chemically than biologically.

  6. Paul Wright says


    I just dropped by to congratulate Russell and Lynnea on a great show last night. I was expecting Matt and Jeff, but you guys certainly did not disappoint. I loved the tales from the Irish Folk Lore book, I’d never made that connection before between reasons for justifiable belief regarding what is canonical and non canonical. I say justifiable quite loosely of course.

    Can we have more of Lynnea on the show ?

    • John Kruger says

      I’ll chime in and also say I was really pleased with Lynnea’s performance on the show. From the Folklore topic, to the table/information analogy, to the “were you there” gambit, it was all concise, spot on, and easily understood. I imagine she has commitments that make show appearances generally inconvenient, but if there is a poll I definitely vote to see more of her on the show, should she be willing.

  7. Coming_Curse says

    Another interesting aspect of the folklore stories is that in German fairytales there is one with kind of a similar progress as the last of the four Lynnea told. In Grimm´s Fairytales there is “Brother Lustig” who gets his backpack enchanted by Petrus so he can wish anything into it. He acts very selfish the whole time (apart from one generous act at the start). In the end after he tricked some devils and Petrus himself, he is sent away from hell as they don´t want him there. But now comes a really interesting twist because he arrives at heavens gate and Petrus rejects him. So he gives back the backpack and then wishes himself into it – as it is now beyond heavens gate he entered heaven and cannot be sent back.
    So shouldn´t christians believe that there is at least one selfish person in heaven? Also one story told “independently” by different authors could certainly convince some people of it´s divine inspiration … (as some mormons tried to convince me by saying that their book was written two times from independent authors so it must be divine …)

    • says

      I grew up Mormon and I’ve never heard anything of the sort. I cannot find any references to two independent authors of The Book of Mormon either. The closest thing I can think of that Mormons may claim is that The Book of Mormon is an independent (from The Bible) account of Jesus Christ (and all that that implies).

      Of course its a pretty weak claim since the only “original document” was only ever “seen” by a few people and all of the people involved in the fabrication, err, translation of that book were well aware of The Bible.

      • Narf (the abdicator) says

        That’s not an entirely accurate summary of it. I know what the person is talking about. It wasn’t written twice by two people. It was translated twice, by Joseph Smith.

        Apparently (the myth goes), after Joseph Smith wrote the first version of the translation down, his wife or someone else (I think it was his wife, but I’m not positive) took away the translation and told him that if he was really translating these texts from the golden plates, he would be able to do it again, and the translations would line up, more or less the same.

        So, he translated the plates a second time, with the help of the angel, Moroni, or however he was doing it, and they supposedly lined up. The only detail I remember about the translation of the golden plates is that he had them in a bag, and he stuck his head in the bag to read them. I can’t remember what they did with the second translation. I probably screwed up a lot of the details, but that’s the general story.

      • Coming_Curse says

        It may well be that the guys telling me this stuff were in some sort of a splinter group or whatever – who knows what kind of development happens here in Germany … This is just what they told me when I asked for reasons to believe in the existence of a god and it seems as if they found this sufficient – or at least tried to sell it as such.
        … and I did not take their card for further reference … :)
        … and no, I was not convinced by that …

  8. valendr0s says

    AXP. Any time you get these “what created life” or “that which begins to exist had a cause” arguments, I don’t think you’re doing a good job defeating them.

    NOTHING “began” to exist OTHER than the universe. My table didn’t begin to exist, we assembled it out of wood which was grown from the carbon in the air, which was there from the accretion of the planet seeded by a supernova of a star, which got its fuel from the big bang.

    Every “item” you’ve ever seen, every process you’ve ever witnessed, every emergent property ever researched traces its beginning to the big bang. Everything. Your consciousness is simply an emergent property of a brain which grew from the fertilized egg, gaining the building blocks to grow from its mother. The first life didn’t *pop* into existence, nor did it *begin* – it was simply a re-combination of chemicals that were already there into something that by nature of its chemistry replicates itself.

    So the question “Do you believe something can come from nothing” is sort of silly. We only have one example of any kind of ‘beginning’ – the beginning of the universe. How can we make broad generalizations about things beginning if we only have a single example to draw from?

    • Russell Glasser says

      I think that could be a valid approach. I’ll file it in the mental toolbox and think about putting it to use.

      • Matt Gerrans says

        It is also worth noting that The Professional Philosopher, Doctor William Lane Craig, PhD himself engages in some rather blatant equivocation on this “begins to exist” point. In debates he likes to, in his most mocking, incredulous voice ask whether he himself did not begin to exist at some point. I find it somewhat astonishing that he hasn’t been soundly slammed for this obvious use of the equivocation fallacy. Maybe he has and I missed it? I’ve seen a debate (I think it was the Robert Price one?) where he got away with it unscathed.

    • Lord Narf says

      Hell, for that matter, did the universe begin to exist? Some physicists don’t seem so sure about that.

      I think part of the problem is that there are so many failure points in the first cause argument, unless you’re expecting it ahead of time and have thought out which path of attack you’re going to take, you’re likely to get a bit jumpy, wanting to hit all of them at once.

      • mike says

        So then to answer the question; “Do you believe something can come from nothing?”, I would state that if you thought the Universe had a beginning, and believed that there was nothing before the universe then yes, something can come from nothing.

        But as a poster above has already stated, now the universe exists, we have no examples of something coming from nothing, as we don’t even have any examples of “nothing”, and as TracieH so eloquently insists, I don’t even understand what is meant by nothing or even if such a concept could exist—(which, if it existed, would make it something! lol)

    • John Kruger says

      There is so much wrong with cosmological arguments, it is hard to pick the best place to start. The equivocation mistake about the word “begin” is a great place to start though.

      I have always found it amusing that most theists do not actually think everything came “from god
      “, since god “exists” outside the universe. So in fact, they believe that god can create something from nothing while arguing that it is wrong to think something can come from nothing. It is essentially a magic conjuring, which is about the level of sophistication you would expect from people living thousands of years ago.

      • Lord Narf says

        Yeah, I definitely like that idea. You have to begin with semantics, with any argument with a theist. Until you get the terminology nailed down, a theist will equivocate about every other sentence, sometimes.

      • valendr0s says

        That’s sort of one of my favorite parts about the argument vs the reality…

        > That which began to exist had a cause!
        That chair!
        The wood!
        The earth!
        The universe began to exist! It had a beginning.
        No, it had a beginning.
        < To call the start of the universe a beginning is itself a paradox. The start of the universe also started all spacetime, there is no 'before' for the universe to not exist in before the universe 'began'. So for all logical intents and purposes the universe has always existed. And it can't have a cause because there is no space or time for anything to be 'before'… It's as logically nonsensical as a 'bed made of sleep', a '100 ton mass with a mass of 1 ton', or a 'omniscient omnipresent omnibenevolent god'… It's logically impossible.

        • Lord Narf says

          Heh, yes, the Preview button is your friend, if you’re using extensive tagging. Firefox displays them in a bizarre manner, in the preview view, but Chrome gets it more or less right. Not sure about IE, since I never use it.

          Even if you’re using Firefox, though, at least you can see if you royally screwed up a tag, such that it won’t even function.

    • EnlightenmentLiberal says

      Meh. I think my favored tactic when dealing with people who ask about the origin of life and the origin of spacetime is just to start with “I don’t know”. I think it’s critical, because that is the honest position.

      Instead, the hosts spent a long time arguing over pedantics and definitions, such as the definition of a “code”. If I was the host, I would simply say “Ok. It’s a code. What’s your point?”. I expect the reply “only intelligence can make a code”, and then I would say: “Ok. How do you know that? Where is your evidence? Furthermore, while I think your argument is wrong, let’s say I grant your argument for the sake of discussion – what the hell does this have to do with Christianity? Showing the existence of a mere deist god gets you absolutely no closer to demonstrating any of the useful claims of Christianity – such as conscious experience after clinical braindeath, that telepathically submitting yourself as a slave to a celestial zombie Jewish carpenter named Jesus will achieve rewards after clinical braindeath, and so on.”

      Finally, in this specific case, I would also take a moment to argue against his standard of “the best explanation”. This is a fundamental flaw in his reasoning process. “The best explanation” as a standard is horseshit. If your best explanation is horseshit, that’s when you say “I don’t know”. That’s what good skepticism and rationalism demands. You can’t just have something that’s 0.1% more likely right than wrong to say colloquially that it’s probably true, or that you think it’s true. You need to meet a certain threshold of confidence before I’ll let that slide.

      PS: I was going to suggest reading some Richard Carrier for that last point, and I still will, although I have some minor nits with Richard Carrier on some of the pedantics related to this.

    • samuelclemens says

      I think the treatment of first cause arguments has been fairly complete. I especially liked the treatment by Tracie and Russell recently, in which they outlined each premise of the argument and indicated why it was not necessarily true (things may be uncaused, popping in and out of existence at the quantum level, etc.) I do however think perhaps the problem of intelligent design could be addressed in a clearer manner. I personally like the chemistry approach to intelligent design. RNA (a base bound to a sugar) can self-assemble and self replicate, creating the original RNA world. DNA is simply a more stable form of RNA, which was selected for due to selection pressures, essentially increased consistency of favorable changes in reproduction. I know you all have attacked the idea of information, but I feel like some basic chemistry can really bring down the veil of analogy that seems to trip up so many people (especially John.) Just my two cents from listening to the show!
      Also, I loved the confusion that Lynnea got when she started talking about her time machine. A great addition to the show.

  9. Danny the Infidel says

    In the Irish folktale with the guy that wanted to get married and got all them trials, the friends/angels that could do all that stuff are almost identical with some of the characters in the tall tales of Baron von Münchhausen. One person that could see really well, one that could hear anything and one that could blow hurricanes. Not that anyone of those was angels.

  10. says

    The caller who went on and on about “code” is representative of fundamentalists who can’t seem to differentiate between metaphor and reality. They take everything literally, not just the Bible. They can’t imagine that people can read the Harry Potter books without taking up some sort of witchcraft practice. They can’t imagine that we all (or mostly all) know that it’s fiction and just enjoy reading a clever, allegorical story.

    • omar says

      That caller was John from Chicago. His combination of willful ignorance and casual arrogance used to be funny. Then it was sad. Now it pisses me off. No matter how many times someone patiently explains to him that DNA is not a code, his response is always: “DNA is obviously a code.” And he loves using words and concepts he doesn’t understand. Lynnea and Russell are nice people. But John took advantage of their kindness and refused to listen to them.

      At this point; John needs a serious beat down. I don’t mean the smiling Tracie Harris kind. Or even the stern Jen Peeples kind. This is a job for Matt. He doesn’t have a problem using the hold button when some caller starts preaching instead of debating. And some people deserve to be called idiots.

      • Lord Narf says

        Let’s get John to call in the next time that Aron is in Austin on the show. He and Matt together would do the job you want done, I think. :D

      • nrdo says

        I agree that John from Chicago is severely out of his depth talking about DNA but I think it would be run against the educational intent of the show for the hosts to say, flippantly, that DNA isn’t a code. DNA contains coded information – it’s one of the strongest supports for evolution. [Not to mention the science of bioinformatics]

        John goes off the rails in his assertion that information is something unnatural that requires a mind. The colloquial use of the word seems to imply this, but the mathematical definitions of information make it clear that it’s an expression of the likelihood of a given arrangement of things with respect to a number of other arrangements. It only has meaning when defined with respect to randomness (entropy), so, the arrangement of DNA is no more miraculous than the complex crystal structure of a snowflake. They both arise from known physical processes.

    • John Nugent says

      Haven’t watched the episode yet, and all these spoilers… tsk, tsk… LOL

      But this reminds me of the Fundamentalist who tried, when I mentioned Paul referring to Abraham as allegory, to tell me that Allegory was a literary term for Fact.

      Excuse me? Playwright here.

  11. Danny the Infidel says

    It’s interesting how pre-existing myths and fables sort of get assimilated in to Christianity.
    If you take Scandinavia as an example; myths of Trolls, the Nix, the Huldra etc. did already exist in the mind of the people, and they where not going to stop believing in them. The only difference was that those creatures was said to be evil or servants of the devil.

  12. jaytheostrich says

    @8: “NOTHING “began” to exist OTHER than the universe. My table didn’t begin to exist, we assembled it out of wood which was grown from the carbon in the air, which was there from the accretion of the planet seeded by a supernova of a star, which got its fuel from the big bang.”

    Do we in fact KNOW that the universe ‘began to exist’, as opposed to ‘began to exist AS IT IS NOW’? We don’t know what was “before” the rapid expansion, so we don’t AFAIK have any right to say that it ‘began to exist’ just before that.. we just know what state it was in then, and what’s happened to it since.

  13. says

    Awesome episode guys. I love Lynnea Glasser, that sistah is always so kewl under pressure, she delivers it straight and knocks insanity right out the park. I don’t know why she thought the Irish Tales she told were boring though, I found them utterly fascinating and had visions of small, animated shorts with these themes in mind; esp the one about the guy who made foolish, selfish wishes, (which reminds meeee, YAY!!! I made the finals in an Australian Film Contest . Wish me luck my atheistic brothers and sisters!!)

    That said, uhhh, I kinda knew that SUPER ATHEIST guy was the same one who had called before ( same delivery and booming voice). Can’t recall his real name, it was probably an alias anyway. I was literally screaming at the screen for you guys to hang up (like ya’ll could hear me, right?”) and I also literally cheered when Russell did. That dude is a mess starting Christina troll–I mean, at least ATTEMPT to change your voice and style…lol

    • John Nugent says

      Err… Alicia… What’s a Christina Troll? I know what a troll is, but is this a new term? If you’ve noticed my FB, you’ll know, I’ve been away for a bit. LOL

  14. says

    One note I would like to make is that when Russell didn’t know the answer he didn’t pretend to know it. He gave a honest answer in saying “I don’t know”. One of the biggest complaints I have with theists is that they have already drawn the conclusion that that their god is the only answer and that we exist only because they do not have a better explantion other then a supernatural one. A question I once asked my Sunday school teacher was; “Why didn’t Jesus just make a movie camera to record all of his miricles to prove that he’s the Son of God instead of having a to rely on the testimonies of others?”. That would convince me more then just some book.

    Kudos to Russell and Lynnea for a good show it was quite funny.

  15. stubby says

    Good show, Glassers. Thanks for the info about Godless Bitches coming back. i was worried they were done with the podcast.

  16. Matt Gerrans says

    DNA is not code, much less “digital.” I think you guys needed to pounce on that. There is a difference between something that has a complex pattern and “digital code.” Tell the caller to look up the word “digital.”

    • jacobfromlost says

      A code is a somewhat arbitrary representation system agreed upon by two or more communicating parties as a communication tool.

      DNA isn’t arbitrary, and it doesn’t do any communicating, and no one has to agree one what it “means”, and no one needs to agree on them for them to exist and do what they do (reminds me of the people who sometimes think English is woven into the fabric of reality somehow).

      It’s just natural stuff doing what natural stuff does. (It’s not like the rain tells itself to fall, flow downhill to a river or stream, and then tells itself to find its way to the ocean where it can evaporate and start all over again. Rain drops are not a code for this cycle, nor are rivers or oceans or gravity. There is no code involved.)

      • says

        The man was being intellectually dishonest. He knows on a level how the terms are being applied, but is purposefully skewring them to achieve his own ends.

    • Corwyn says

      DNA may or may not be a code (depending on your definition), it most certainly is digital for many definitions, namely it has discrete states (base 4) rather than a continuous spectrum (analog).

      None of that excuses concluding that it must be intelligently made of course. Even if it is a digital code, that just means that not all digital codes are intelligently designed, since we have a counter example.

      • omar says

        I think that’s why Russell let that “digital” thing go. Yes, technically DNA is digital. Okay, let’s say it’s a code from god. What exactly is god telling us? And why not put this code in the bible?

      • LCD says

        I seem to recall the caller saying it was not just digital, but also binary, which is arguably wrong: DNA is comprised of four bases in arrangements of two (binary) but is transcribed in codons of three bases (though the number of bases required for other functions, such as protein binding, can vary significantly). It’s weird to think about, but as the molecular machinery that reads DNA literally tumbles along it’s structure: it’s a little like trying to read a CD (digital info) with an LP player’s needle (analogue). Messy to think about. Perhaps we’re using the wrong analogy…;)

        • LCD says

          Whoops! Better correct myself.

          The PAIRS in DNA serve to link the two strands together and allow them to separate easily, and encode no info as of themselves. The one-dimensional base sequence (ACGCTAGetc.) is what matters. I suppose you’d call that quaternary info if anything. Not binary. Ever.

          • Alex says

            Yeah, thats what I meant, each basepair can have 4 constellations since one side can be gatc, and the other side is then uniquely determined , and i count those 4 states as 2 bits. Three basepairs give 6 bits, ie 0…63, but since the translation is redundand, there arent different 64 aminoacids+ start/stop codes but less. The reading out is however very precise and not like reading a cd with a sapphire.
            It’ not binary, but pretty equivalent to binary….

          • LCD says

            @Alex (I can’t reply to your post for some reason)

            I’m not sure what you mean by constellations. If you’re looking at the coding regions of DNA (the parts with “information”, you can ignore the coding strand and look at only the template strand, as this is what the ribosome reads to generate the RNA transcript (which is identical to the coding strand).


            Each base on this DNA strand can be either A,C,T or G. That’s equivalent to 0,1,2 and 3. So that’d be a quaternary numeral system, right? I am not intimately familiar with information theory but I always took binary to be a 2-value 0 and 1 deal, rather than a 4-value one.

            Assuming the DNA isn’t methylated or silenced or something. Then the analogy breaks down. :P

          • Alex says

            LCD, we mean the same thing I guess. Since pairings are always GC and AT, having a base on one strand determines the base on the other, so there are (abusing the terminology) four “constellations” AT, TA, GC, CG,
            which you can map to 00, 01, 10, 11. So from an information theory point of view I am pretty sure that one base pair XY is simply equivalent to two bits, irrespective the fact that it is realized via a four-valued system rather than a binary one… But IANAIT and IANAB, so… :)

          • LCD says

            Sooort of.

            Only one strand contains protein encoding information, the other is there to allow semi-conservative replication of DNA, as well as because unbound single-stranded DNA is a very unstable molecule, and because a sort-of-copy of the template strand is useful when the template strand needs repairing etc. etc. Biochemistry.

            So the pairing is, insofar as protein synthesis is concerned, irrelevant.

            The only information the ribosome “sees” is the base sequence on the template strand. So that’d only be one “bit”: the paired base is not part of the process.

            But that “bit” could have one of four values (A/C/T/G). So that’d couldn’t be a binary system by definition (and so “bit” is an inappropriate term.

            This might be one of those problems that comes with considering DNA as a pure code a la a computer code or a piece of text, rather than a big, big polymer with lots of structural complexity and weird interactions with lots of other molecules, most of which do dramatically different things. :P

        • Alex says

          Yes, yes, just forget the second strand, that was confusing on my part. I was just stressing that it does not contain new information, irrespective of whether it is being used to code for aminoacids directly.

          Looking at one strand now, each base location can have four values and therefore contains exactly the same information as two digital bits, is all I’m saying :)

          • nrdo says

            DNA and computer code are not directly analogous but if you do the calculations, it actually around 0.4 bits per codon (3 base pairs) not 2. Yeah it’s confusing but that’s because you can’t just look at the DNA itself, so have to consider the “background” – the entropy allowed by the system interpreting it.

            This post explains it very well: Information Theory/DNA

          • Alex says


            Thanks for the link, that is very interesting! So if I understand this correctly, while technically each codon has 6 bits, restrictions of the reading mechanism limit the statistical information content to less than that?

            So, in computer terms, this would be like a hard drive on which you can only store files which can still be zip compressed by a factor 12, files with higher information content would not be stable. Is that a good analogy?

            This is a bit contradictory within the post you linked though, where it is claimed that random sequences contain little information – these are precisely the sequences that cannot efficiently be compressed, right?

          • Alex says

            … also, I couldn’t find anything regarding your statement that the way DNA is read or interpreted limits the information content in principle. I interpret the postsuch that the actual information content of DNA, statistically speaking, is lower than the naive counting of bits because it is compressible, but I didnt find statements about fundamental limitations of the maximal information content of DNA in the piece. What was your source for that?

          • nrdo says

            It is a bit confusing [honestly, no pun intended :-P ], but the biggest reason for the lower apparent efficiency of DNA as a storage medium is wobble pairing, i.e. two different codons, when translated, can refer to the same amino acid. You also need room for punctuation (stop and start) codons. All these “systemic” issues reduce DNA’s information content with respect to the theoretical maxima you calculated above. This is based on Shannon’s information theory.

            Thinking of it from the point of view of compressibility [Kolmogorov-Chaitin] is kind of a whole different thing.

          • anastasia says

            nrdo: Wobble pairing is only relevant for RNA, not for DNA. Also, wobble pairing does not have anything to do with several codons translating to the same amino acid — that’s just the genetic code.

    • Paul Cornelius says

      It’s now an established fact that about 98% of the human genome is never transcribed. Since these parts of our DNA have no function, they cannot meaningfully be described as “code.”

      Seems like a frivolous thing for the intelligent designer to do. It might be entertaining to hear the caller try to explain it. Then again, it might not be.

      • omar says

        Good point. So god writes code. Is he any good at it? Why are there lines of code in us that don’t do anything? But I’m with you on his response. Theists are experts at twisting themselves into knots. Why, you can’t know the mind of god. Sure he’s trying to communicate with us through DNA. But we can’t possibly understand him.

        • Narf (the abdicator) says

          Maybe it’s something to do with how he hardened Pharaoh’s heart and took away his free will? The genetic input isn’t the free will part?

      • Alex says

        Concerning the “junk” DNA,
        Many of those lines of code come from millions of years of endogenous retroviruses invading our gametes and being chopped up by crossing over, and similar stuff. So not only did god put some of the same nonsensical crap in us and in chimps, He made it look EXACTLY as if we had a common ancestor who, back in the day millions of years ago, got infected by a virus which can now be observed in both ours and chimp DNA at exactly the same spot. This is in my mind even worse than having mostly the same DNA as chimps, because it points to a specific chance event in history how a certain bit of shared DNA was produced by a well-known mechanism.

        If you accept that your god does that kind of deception (faking a simultaneous virus insertion into both chimp and human DNA at exactly the same spot), you lose, because you have admitted that such evidence is not evidence for your god.

        • nrdo says

          You’re right. When I first started studying biology, I was a weak theist and I thought of the complexity of DNA as support for some sort of design. But, when you understand it more deeply, it’s actually a fantastically inefficient system filled with the cruft and arbitrary design “choices” that we see in the macroscopic world.

    • Gribs says

      The discussion regarding DNA reminded me of a discussion I had with my mother over the summer.

      My mother, who happens to be a biologist (with a degree earned in the 1960′s) and a devout Catholic, tried to argue that when two humans combine their DNA to create a zygote, the combined DNA in the zygote has sufficient information to create a human and must therefore be a human. She continued to extrapolate that destroying a zygote intentionally is the same as murdering a human being. In her opinion, destroying the gametes is not sinful because they do not contain the full set of necessary information to make a human being by themselves. This is how she justifies her position and conscience regarding contraception that prevents conception.

      I provided a couple of counter-arguments by analogy. The first was that a book of music contains sufficient information to produce a symphony but it is not a symphony or the experience of playing a part in or listening to a symphony. The second was that a computer program contains sufficient information to produce the output of the program should it be run on an appropriate machine but until it runs there is no output and we might not know the output ahead of time.

      Does anyone have any input for me on this? I am not going to go back and argue with my mom about it, but I am always thinking about this sort of thing. I am the prodigal son… the recovering Catholic who has become an atheist.

  17. lancefinney says

    Is someone in the apologetics world talking up the “inference to the best explanation” meme? I heard it from John from Chicago in the call, and it has also been popping up from Christians in online debates I’ve been having.

    It seems like someone is out there teaching Christians that “inference to the best explanation” is a magic incantation that turns their baseless speculations into respectable logical arguments.

    • says

      William Lane Craig is big on the IBE. He tries to use it to argue that an actual supernatural resurrection is the best explanation for the ‘evidence’ the Bible and history present about the ‘empty’ tomb of Jesus.

      • unfogged says

        I had a theist argue last weekend that the federal rules of evidence show that the bible is authentic and that proves that the miracles happened as described. I countered that no book could ever be evidence for miracles and he dismissed that with the claim that everything I believe came from a book and if I accepted the rules of evidence used by the US Supreme Court then I had to accept the bible at face value. Of course, he also claimed that when you got to the end of the physical evidence it was completely rational to believe what you thought was the best explanation rather than saying “I don’t know”. Needless to say we didn’t get very far but it was fun.

          • says

            No only that, but once upon a time bible verses were admitted as evidence FOR the continuation of slavery…so what do theists hope to gain with such an argument….? The fact that the bible might have once been used in court doesn’t mean that doing so was moral or validating. humph–must be a new apologist meme or something.

          • unfogged says

            Ah, but you see there are 66 books in the bible that are totally interwoven and support each other and besides, the dead sea scrolls match the later texts almost exactly and it if you don’t accept a god then you are basing that on faith and…. every time I objected to anything he simply switched to another.

            I’ve only recently started being publicly open about being an atheist and it was funny hearing all the same crap that you guys deal with on the show. It made me realize how much I’ve learned from watching and how valuable a resource the ACA is. It also shed light on just how daunting the task ahead is.

          • Narf (the abdicator) says

            Hell yeah. I wouldn’t be half as coherent as I am, when arguing with theists, without this show. I watched the entire available archive, over the course of something like six months or a year.

            Well, I mostly just listened to them in the background, while doing other relatively mindless things, since in most of the episodes, there’s nothing that you really need to see.

          • Narf (the abdicator) says

            Actually, you do look pretty cool with the facial hair, the glasses, and the layered look you’ve had going, recently. Kind of professorial.

          • says

            Ohhhh, (my dumb blond is showing) I thought you were talking about Russell cause that is what I noticed this time around (but didn’t want to say cause we seem to shun remarking on physical appearances–lol) Him and the wifey looked so cute together…I didn’t notice anything new about Martin’s hair???

      • Narf (the abdicator) says

        William Lane Craig is big on the IBE. He tries to use it to argue that an actual supernatural resurrection is the best explanation for the ‘evidence’ the Bible and history present about the ‘empty’ tomb of Jesus.

        I’ve heard that several times, myself. “The best evidence of Jesus’s resurrection is the empty tomb.”

        Okay, fine … where is it? Before you can expect it to be any kind of evidence, either good or poor, you have to actually present it, in anything other than a fairy tale. They’ve got nothing, even if there weren’t several other, more plausible explanations for an empty tomb in the appropriate area, with Yeshua’s name on it. But they haven’t even got that.

        • says

          Ever hear McDowell’s rants from EVIDENCE THAT DEMANDS A VERDICT–if that masterpiece of apologetics doesn’t make you want to eat your own young nothing else will, esp when it comes to the circular stupidity regarding the tomb.

          • Narf (the abdicator) says

            I’ve watched Steve Shives go over Lee Strobel’s, William Lane Craig’s, Norman Geisler’s and Frank Turek’s, and now Josh McDowell’s books. The others borrow heavily from Josh McDowell’s arguments. They haven’t had a new argument in the past 30 or 40 years, and their arguments from back then are kind of shit.

          • Narf (the abdicator) says

            There are definite traceable threads from Lewis’s work to the apologists of the later 20th century. Josh McDowell came up with a lot of his own material, based more loosely upon Lewis’s arguments, though.

            What I was trying to get at is that those later guys mostly ripped McDowell’s arguments straight out of his books and used them themselves. With the borrowing from Lewis, by McDowell, it was more of a natural progression. With the borrowing from McDowell, by the later guys, it was borderline plagiarism.

          • says

            Oh, I agree. I think Steve even points out how McDowell even plagiarized himself by copying one page of text verbatim into a latter chapter. Now, that’s just damn lazy. Wonder what a christian would say to that? The devil did it to make McDowell look bad?

  18. Todd Gidney says

    Love you guys. The book on Mars is crazy short. “In, out. Repeat if necessary.” Im off to watch the rest of the show. Keep up the good work.

  19. julial says

    If faced with the “inference to the best explanation” magic phrase, I’d ask how the apparently arbitrary retrodiction invoking Jehovah is superior to a similar just so story about any other commonly invoked imaginary being; Allah, IFSM, IPU, Thor, etc. The inference phrase is inherently not faith based and the argument continues using actual evidence and demonstrated predictive capability. Imaginary beings have been shown to lack the ability to accurately predict future events. Science has not.

    On another topic, doesn’t the teleological argument fail if the mind is a natural emergent phenomenon?
    If nature can produce complexity in design through the evolution of the human mind, isn’t that evidence that design can arise through natural mechanisms? RE the Paley watch thought experiment. Didn’t he sabotage his presumed goal of demonstrating a designer for the observed universe by comparing the watch to rocks and dirt. If he was saying that we could recognize design in the former by comparison to presumably lack of design in the latter. Isn’t that saying that the dirt (natural universe) isn’t designed?

    • Narf (the abdicator) says

      Didn’t he sabotage his presumed goal of demonstrating a designer for the observed universe by comparing the watch to rocks and dirt. If he was saying that we could recognize design in the former by comparison to presumably lack of design in the latter. Isn’t that saying that the dirt (natural universe) isn’t designed?

      Yeah, they’ve pointed that out on the show, before, either TAE or NPR. According to the metaphor, you should be unable to pick out the watch from the rest of the landscape, since you’re looking for a watch in a field full of watches … and the field itself is a watch.

    • says

      I was thinking of writing some kind of inverse 20-questions game (where you can select attributes of the thing the computer is thinking about), to see whether you can figure out whether the unknown object was designed or not.

      There’d be a list of qualities one can cask, such as size, complexity, material, etc.

      Maybe one day when I stop procrastinating on everything…

  20. TRUTH says

    Why did they ban Charlie Check’m? I don’t understand why they dont’ want him calling the show. Wasn’t he talking about the evolution of religion? What did you do that was so bad to get banned from the show? Did he curse, or threaten them or something? Did he do anything?

  21. Rob Wolfram says

    Pretty late reply, but please make Lynnea a regular co-host. I enjoyed this show more than many others. Her wit is superb!

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