Science Then: The Bible vs. The Greeks Edition

Did the Bible predict modern science better than ancient scientists did? Funny to ask. Because naive Muslims have been making the same embarrassing claim for the Koran. Over a decade ago I published an article showing how silly conservative Muslim apologists were for claiming the Koran miraculously predicted scientific facts, by demonstrating that the Epicureans (and I just used the De Rerum Natura of Lucretius at that, and thus left out many other items that could have been added), who were the least fully scientific of the philosophers of the era who produced scientific results, got right a hell of a lot more, and more precisely and clearly declared their results, than the Koran, and all explicitly through just armchair reasoning from basic observations. No miraculous communications from angels. No telecom with the gods.

That article was Predicting Modern Science: Epicurus vs. Mohammed. In that I show several logical flaws in these kinds of arguments: (1) they use a fake translation (they ignore the actual language of the text in its actual context) to “invent” a better fit with modern science post hoc (a common scam run by psychics called retrofitting); (2) they ignore the fact that mere armchair thinking often had already produced the same conclusion or comparable conclusions and often in fact more and better conclusions (thus negating any claim that such “hits” required miraculous powers or informants); (3) they get ancient science wrong (e.g. they claim that ancient scientists hadn’t discovered a thing, when in fact they had); (4) they cherry pick bizarre data so as to rely on luck giving them hits (in any vast enough tome of baloney, you will inevitably find random matches with the truth by mere chance), but miss the fact that if one actually had a miraculous line to prescient scientific knowledge, you’d be reporting way more useful shit than this (compare the relative utility of knowing that cosmic expansion or heliocentrism are true, and knowing the germ theory of disease or the basic principles of electricity—for a religion that supposedly prioritizes the welfare of humanity).

Now there is an image going around (evidently even favorably shared by actual scientists in some cases) making the same stupid claim for the Christian Bible. It’s so bad I was laughing out loud before I even finished the third line. It has been debunked before (e.g. here and here). But since ancient science is my field, I figured my own fisk would be of use to the world. So here goes… [Read more…]

No, Bacon Is Not as Bad for You as Smoking

Photo close-up of bacon sizzling in a pan.Some of you might have heard that bacon was rated as being as carcinogenic as smoking by the World Health Organization.

No. That did not happen.

And this is a good case for learning some modern critical thinking skills.

I’ll spoil the surprise by quoting them directly:

No, processed meat has been classified in the same category as causes of cancer such as tobacco smoking and asbestos (IARC Group 1, carcinogenic to humans), but this does NOT mean that they are all equally dangerous. The IARC classifications describe the strength of the scientific evidence about an agent being a cause of cancer, rather than assessing the level of risk.

In other words, all they said is that we are certain that “processed meats” (i.e. chemically treated meats) do cause cancer (in fact, just one cancer: colorectal cancer). They did not say it was all that bad a cause of it—certainly nowhere near as bad as smoking is of an assortment of other cancers (not only of the lung), which is dozens of times deadlier compared to an average consumption of processed meat—and most people are average consumers.


First Rule of Critical Thinking Club Is: Always go to the original source and read what it actually says. The media should never be trusted to get a story right. Even less so some rando on twitter.

Second Rule of Critical Thinking Club Is: Never buy any alarmism about risk until you know how to compare the newly claimed risk to risks you already accept.

What do I mean by that? [Read more…]

Moral Reasoning Course: Learn the Science & Philosophy of Being a Better Person

Logo for Partners for Secular Activism. The letters PSA in blue, in an art decco font, over a light grey watermark of a compass pointing near to north, all on a white backround.Written from Puerto Rico today, as a tropical storm bears down on us: Come join my online course on moral reasoning! It starts next week. It goes a month. Study and participate at your own pace and on your own time. We don’t just cover the basic philosophy of morality and moral reasoning and why be moral and so on. We also cover what the sciences have discovered about all this. Which is more than you might think! Register now.

And don’t forget to order the required course text (in print or digital), Personality, Identity, and Character (eds. Darcia Narvaez and Daniel Lapsley). I recommend saving money: you can just rent that book on kindle, or buy the kindle edition or a used print copy. All other materials will be provided at no extra cost.


Why take this course?

As I wrote for this course last year, a course that is now tied for my second favorite (I offer it roughly once a year):

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Study the Science & Philosophy of Free Will with Me!

Logo for Partners for Secular Activism. The letters PSA in blue, in an art decco font, over a light grey watermark of a compass pointing near to north, all on a white backround.Join an affordable one-month online course in August, where I’ll teach and discuss the philosophy of free will, including the scientific facts relating to it, the legal evidence relating to it, the medical ethics relating to it, and more. Let others know, too! Anyone you know who might be interested. This is one of the ways I support my work in history and philosophy. And it’s useful. And fun!

This is your chance to ask a published philosopher and historian of philosophy all the questions you have about the subject, and also to become more informed about it and how to discuss it with others, as well as just hone and exercise your philosophical mind in general, on an important subject in law, morality, and life. A better understanding of this subject will benefit your personal life, your political thought, your attitudes toward prison reform, your understanding of consent and personal autonomy, and a great deal else.

The course begins next month (in roughly two weeks). It requires buying only one small, affordable textbook (Sam Harris’s Free Will, print or electronic). All other materials will be provided. The approach to Harris will be critical, but constructive, and backed with further materials showing the actual application of free will as a concept in the real world, not just in the ivory tower.

Among things covered will be:

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Fantastic Study of Gender Differences Finds White Privilege Instead

Graphic from the article discussed showing support for nuclear power by gender as described in the article.This is one of the most excellent must read articles ever sent to me (by a girlfriend who does this sort of thing for a living. You know who you are, Girl. Thank you!) I’m talking about David Roberts, “There’s a Gender Divide on Nuclear Power, but It Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Means,” at Vox.

First I’ll tell you why I think it’s awesome. Then I’ll quote some of the best bits for you, if you just want to skip to that…

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See Me Discuss Ancient Science & Technology at Chabot Space & Science Center!

Photo of the outdoor concrete sign for the Chabot Space & Science Center, which announces it operates in association with the Smithsonian institution.Wednesday this April 15 (2015) at 7pm at Chabot SSC in Oakland (CA) I’ll be delivering a lecture on my favorite topic: How far did the Roman Empire get in science and technology? What, if anything, was still holding them back? What’s the real reason they didn’t experience a scientific or industrial revolution?

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Take My October Class: Moral Reasoning from Theory to Practice (Applying Science and Philosophy in Everyday Life)

This will be a survey of contemporary moral theory and the scientific study of morality, with an aim to improving your own moral decision-making, and encouraging the same in others. Register now. It’s a one-month, online, do-at-your-own-pace course in which you can participate as much or as little as you want. Lots of people just lurk, do the readings, and read the ensuing discussions, and that’s totally fine. But there will also be challenging assignment questions each week that will help you grasp and benefit from the readings and discussions, for anyone who wants to take that additional step.

Subjects covered in this course will include:

  1. [Read more…]

The Star of Bethlehem: The Definitive Takedown

Cover of Aaron Adair's book The Star of Bethlehem: A Skeptical View, showing a star to the left, the milky way as viewed from earth to the right, part of an astrological horoscope to the bottom right, and the stock bible image of the magi on camels in shadow at the bottom.An astrophysicist has just done a bang-up job debunking the Star of Bethlehem and its affiliated fawning scholarship. All in just 155 pages (in fact, really only 128 if you skip the appendix, glossary, and bibliography). The author is Dr. Aaron Adair. The book is The Star of Bethlehem: A Skeptical View (also available on kindle). Like any responsible amateur, he sought the help of historians, classicists, and specialists for composing his sections on the literary and historical arguments, and for translating the original Greek (even though he has some competence in the language himself). His research was exhaustive. His key arguments fairly conclusive. He explicitly sets aside many eye-rolling side-debates like dating the death of Herod the Great, yet even then he mentions them and his reasons for not delving further into them. And his command of the astronomical arguments is, of course, unmatched, being directly in his field of expertise.

I was one of the experts who advised him on the project and I got to read an advance draft and was very impressed with the result. Hence you’ll see my promotional blurb on the book’s cover. I wrote:

Well researched, scientifically reasoned, elegantly concise, this book will long be required reading on the ‘Star of Bethlehem’. Full of fascinating historical facts, and better informed and more careful than any other book on the subject, this should be on the shelf of everyone interested in that legendary celestial event.

True that. His bibliography alone is of great value. Scientists will find the book especially heartwarming. Historians will as well. It even taught me a few things. In the foreword by astronomer and science writer Bob Berman, for example, I learned something I hadn’t even thought of, an example of Christianity seeping its way even into popular astronomy education. Berman writes…

[The Star of Bethlehem] has been a staple of holiday planetarium shows since the 1930s…[and my] very first column, published in Discover in December 1989, was a two-page spread about the Star of Bethlehem. Basically I summarized the various “explanations” shown to the public during planetariums’ annual “Star of Wonder” shows, then noted that Planetarium Directors–I’d interviewed quite a few–were well aware that each was impossible. Nonetheless, the shows remain popular, and have become such a tradition in and of themselves that no one seems bothered by such make-believe science being annually offered to the public.


Beyond that, however, I find this book of value not just because it will teach you a lot of cool things about history and astronomy with an economy of words, nor only because it has a great bibliography and is the go-to resource now for discussing this subject, but also because in the process of addressing astrological theories of the Star account, Adair deftly demonstrates a point I had long made myself but never had the time to demonstrate: ancient astrology was so wildly inconsistent and diverse that any astrological theory of either Christian origins or biblical accounts is probably beyond any possibility of demonstrating.

And this is relevant to the historicity debate. Not because proving the star account was a wholesale myth (and was inspired by no actual natural or supernatural event), as Adair does, entails or even implies Jesus didn’t exist (a historical man can have such myths spun around him easily enough), but because it shows why every Jesus mythicist who attempts to make an astrotheological argument for the origins of Christianity and (especially) the construction of the Gospels is just engaging in a Rorschach inkblot test. There was no consistent symbolism or system of allusions in ancient astrology, so any attempt to use one (or cobble one together) is just another multiple comparisons fallacy run amok.

That doesn’t mean astrotheological theories are necessarily false. But it does mean none can be proved even probable on present evidence, so the whole attempt should be abandoned.

To understand why, Adair’s book is a must-read. And that’s on top of all the other reasons I’ve summarized. So if any of this is your thing, check it out!

The Moral Truth Debate: Babinski & Shook

I’ve been sent two links of responses to my article last week, “What Exactly Is Objective Moral Truth?” Technically they are responses to Harris. But insofar as I am defending the same core thesis, and the links were sent to me, and both are by authors whose opinions I respect (even if I don’t always agree with them), they warrant a response here. These responses I think should be read by everyone, since they are common mistakes and misunderstandings, and my responses will clarify things you might need clarified…especially in the closing epilogue of this post.

First of the replies is Ed Babinski, who posted his own entry for the Harris contest on Facebook. Second is John Shook, who posted a reply on his blog at CFI.

In both cases, I must first reiterate the whole gist of my article:

One reason Harris is not the best one to use as your straw man in this debate is that doing that is lazy. It allows talking past each other far too easily. To avoid that I created a formal deductive proof of his core thesis (all the way back in 2011…and that was in development well before that, even before I read his book or even knew he was writing it–which means it is only a proof of “his thesis” in retrospect, since I had been developing the same thesis independently since 2004). What I asked people to do is find a logical invalidity or a non-demonstrable premise in my syllogism. Because that will prevent vagueries and misunderstandings and get right to the heart of who is correct. To do that, I told everyone to read my chapter “Moral Facts Naturally Exist” in The End of Christianity (indeed I said in last week’s article, quote, “the syllogisms you have to prove invalid or unsound are on pp. 359-64″). Hereafter I shall refer to that as TEC.

To keep avoiding this is to just lazily act like armchair problem solvers who can’t be bothered to actually look up the best version of the argument they are criticizing. Stop that. No more straw man fallacies. Address the best and most rigorous form of the argument. And do it correctly, i.e., actually identify an actual fallacy in those syllogisms or identify a premise in them that is false (or which you can prove we do not know is true).

Apart from simply not doing that (which is the biggest flaw in these replies, reducing them both to a classic straw man fallacy), here is also what’s wrong with the Babinski and Shook rebuttals… [Read more…]

What Exactly Is Objective Moral Truth?

Sam Harris has a contest on. “Anyone who believes that my case for a scientific understanding of morality is mistaken is invited to prove it in 1,000 words or less.” The best essay (as judged by Harris opponent and atheist philosopher Russell Blackford) will win $2,000 (and be published on Harris’s personal website). “You must refute the central argument of the book—not peripheral issues.” If any such essay actually changes Sam Harris’s mind, they will win not just $2,000 but $20,000 (and Harris will publicly recant his view).

Ophelia Benson has been critical of this contest (see A Losing Lottery Ticket, Sam Has to Presume a Great Big Ought, and a guest post from a commenter Why the Is/Ought Problem Matters). His own contest page (The Moral Landscape Challenge) has an important FAQ (a must read for any contenders). I actually am behind Harris’s program (I think his core thesis is correct, and I think Benson is wrong to say it is not), but I am not very impressed with Harris’s ability to defend or articulate it.

I had even greater problems with Michael Shermer’s attempt to defend the same core thesis Harris does, and I have commented before on how he was simply destroyed by his opponent, philosopher Massimo Pigliucci, even though I think Pigliucci is ultimately wrong and Shermer ultimately right (see Shermer vs. Pigliucci on Moral Science). I expect Harris will get similarly pwned. And that’s sad. Because it hurts their cause. They just aren’t the best defenders of this idea. And they should admit that and stop trying to be lone wolfs and look for and work with expert collaborators. There are several real, even renowned, philosophers who have been defending the same core thesis for years. Harris did not come up with anything fundamentally new here, and they have far more skill and experience dealing with the rigorous philosophical requirements of this debate.

Below I will explain what is wrong with Harris’s contest so far (and why it is not what Benson is concerned about); why what Benson has been saying is incorrect (and misses the point of Harris’ actual core thesis); and how (again) science can actually take over moral philosophy the same way it has done the theory of life (in the science of biology) and the universe (in the sciences of physics, astrophysics, and cosmology) and man and society (in the sciences of anthropology and sociology) and of mind (in psychology, neurophysiology, and cognitive science). [Read more…]