The age of the Earth-1: The history of the search

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

It has been awhile since I have made the regular readers of this blog suffer through a long multipart series exploring a particular question. But my post on the interconnectedness of scientific theories spurred me to thinking about finding a good example, and the age of the Earth popped into my head as almost perfect. This series will be interspersed with posts on other topics.

The process by which science came to be interconnected can be described as beginning with a transition from ‘early modern science’ (which I have chosen to date as beginning with Galileo around 1600 CE) to ‘modern science’, that started around 1800 as new disciplines like geology, chemistry, and biology started to become mature and independent, developing their own theories and research protocols. But starting around 1900 a new trend emerged, which I will call ‘late modern science’, in which these somewhat independently developing fields began, as they grew, to encroach on each other’s territories, and the need to seek consistency among them became apparent. After some initial crises of incompatibility, by around 1930 the theories had started to mesh reasonably well.

The reason modern scientific theories, unlike those of the past, are so robust is that they are now part of an interconnected web of theories that span many disciplines that formerly were separate. The age when each sub-discipline in science could develop on its own with little reference to other sub-disciplines is over. Now they are all linked together with varying degrees of separation. In addition, there are also general, over-arching scientific principles (the laws of thermodynamics, the atomic theory, quantum mechanics, and relativity to name a few) that no one theory can ignore or unilaterally over-ride.

Hence any attempt to reject any one theory in that web and replace it with another without taking into account the impact of this move on other theories is doomed to fail. This is where creationists stumble badly. They tend to view scientific theories and facts as modular units in which any one they dislike or which obviously disagrees with the Bible or Koran or other religious text can be plucked out and replaced with one that is more congenial. Dislike evolution? Remove it from the scientific pantheon and put special creation in its place. Don’t want to believe in an old Earth? No problem. Replace it with Ussher’s calculation of 4004 BCE as the year of creation.

But hold on a minute there, my creationist friends. You are no longer living in the 17th century and so your freedom to pick and choose is long gone. Determining the age of the Earth is precisely one of those investigations that beautifully illustrate the interconnectedness of science and why efforts to change the scientific consensus in such an ad hoc manner are bound to fail. In fact, estimating the age of the Earth provides a beautiful example of how scientific theories have made the transition from early modern to modern to late modern, and this series of posts will illustrate that sequence.

In his classic book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn pointed out the important role that scientific textbooks play in our understanding of science. They are usually re-written after each scientific revolution and in addition to elucidating how the latest theory works, their other purpose is to persuade the reader of the worthiness of the new theory, why it should be accepted as the right one and why the previous ones were wrong. So textbooks are also designed to serve at least partly a propaganda purpose. But in doing so, they necessarily distort scientific history. As part of this attempt at persuasion of the worthiness of the latest theory, textbooks often act as if the questions which the current theory addresses successfully are the ones that have always concerned (and baffled) scientists from the beginning of time, and then proceed to explain why each of the earlier theories failed to get the right answer before the current one came along and solved the problem. In reality, the questions that the new theory successfully deals with often came into sharp definition concurrently with the new theory.

This is the case with the age of the Earth. We have now pinned it down accurately (we think) to the current value of 4.55 billion years. This is quite a feat and reflects great credit on the current scientific theories that have converged on that number. We now think that the age of the Earth is such an obviously important question (after all, we have devoted enormous resources to pinning it down) that we cannot imagine that people were not always trying to figure it out. But in fact, the idea that the Earth has a definite age at all, let alone a number that can be actually measured scientifically, is a relatively new idea, that has been taken seriously only within the last 150 years or so.

For a long time in history, although most ancient religions had their cosmogonies, the idea of estimating the age of the Earth and giving it a definite number of years was not an important question. In the early days, it used to be that the age of formation of the Earth, of the universe, and the appearance of humans were not really distinguished but are thought to have all occurred in some distant, unspecified past, perhaps even infinitely far back.

The books, The Chronologers’ Quest: The Search for the Age of the Earth (2006) by Patrick Wyse Jackson and Lord Kelvin and the age of the Earth (1975) by Joe D. Burchfield examine some of those early beliefs. Very often they involved elaborate stories about how the universe came into being, such as an egg hatching and giving birth to the Sun, but no indication of when that happened or even if there was an actual starting time. Many of them had cyclical ideas of the universe in which it either oscillated or went through repeated creation and destruction events so that what we currently have is just the latest cycle but the process would have been continuing back into eternity. Hence fixing a creation date did not even make sense.

But things changed with the arrival of Christianity, as I will discuss in the next post in this series.

(Main sources for this series of posts are The Chronologers’ Quest: The Search for the Age of the Earth (2006) by Patrick Wyse Jackson and Lord Kelvin and the age of the Earth by Joe D. Burchfield (1975).)

POST SCRIPT: Homeopathy explained!

I discussed homeopathy before but now a homeopathy ‘expert’, described as an eye doctor, tries to explain how it works, which consists of snowing her audience with scientific jargon. In the process she manages to mangle almost all of physics. Although what she says makes no sense at all, it is an illustrative example of how people will believe what they want to believe, especially if it is presented authoritatively by someone who seems to have some sort of credentials.

The evil of the consumer economy

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

(Due to the holiday, this is a repost from Thanksgiving of last year, edited and updated.)

Each year, the Thanksgiving holiday is ruined by the revolting attention that the media pays to the retail industry in the days immediately following Thanksgiving. They wallow in stories of sales, of early-bird shoppers on Friday lining up in the cold at 4:00 am to get bargains, fighting with other shoppers to grab sale items, people getting trampled in the crush, the long lines at cash registers, the year’s “hot” gift items, and the breathless reports of how much was spent and what it predicts for the future of the economy.

The media eggs on this process by giving enormous amounts of coverage to people going shopping, a non-news event if there ever was one, adding cute names like “Black Friday” and more recently “Cyber Monday.” 2008 saw the tragic story of a Wal-Mart worker killed in Black Friday rush of shoppers who callously trampled over him in order to get to the bargains quickly

Frankly, I find this obsessive focus on consumption disgusting. In fact, I would gladly skip directly from Thanksgiving to Christmas, because the intervening period seems to me to be just one long orgy of consumerism in which spending money is the goal. The whole point of the Christmas holiday seems to have become one in which people are made to feel guilty if they are not spending vast amounts of time and money in finding gifts for others. There is an air of forced jollity that is jarring, quite in contrast to the genuine warmth of Thanksgiving. And it just seems to stress people out.

Since I grew up in a country where people were encouraged to be frugal, often out of necessity, I still find it disquieting to be urged to spend as if it were somehow my duty to go broke in order to shore up the retail industry and help “grow the economy.” I still don’t understand that concept. An economy that is based on people buying what they do not need or can even afford seems to me to be inherently unsustainable, if not downright morally offensive.

There is a curious schizophrenic attitude one finds in the media to this consumption. On the one hand people bemoan the fact that the savings rate in the US is so low that the country has to borrow from overseas to meet its investment needs, that individual Americans are not saving enough for retirement, that they are living beyond their means because of easy access to credit, and that personal bankruptcies are on the rise. The current sub-prime mortgage debacle has been caused by people being urged to pay more for houses than they could afford, and now many face foreclosure and homelessness.

On the other hand, the media gleefully cheerleads when it is reported that people are going shopping, since this is supposed to be a ‘consumer economy’, and the stock market goes up when retail sales are high.

I don’t get it. Apart from the fact that buying stuff other than to meet a direct need is simply wasteful, surely people must realize that we live in a world of finite resources, not just of fossilized energy but of minerals and other raw materials and even fresh water? Surely we should be cutting back on consumption so that we can leave something for future generations?

We are using up resources like there is no tomorrow and I am amazed that people don’t see the disastrous consequences of this. It is not even a long-term issue since the resources crunch will start to manifest itself in around thirty years or so. I know that the ‘end-timers’, the rapturists and the like who think that the world is on the verge of coming to an end see this problem (and that of global warming) as nothing to worry about since Jesus will return very soon. But what about the others? Is it that religious people think that since we are special in the eyes of god, he will somehow pull a miracle out of his hat and save us from our profligate selves?

To me the long-term problem faced by the Earth having finite resources is so obvious that I am amazed that we are not doing anything drastic about it. Here is a suggestion to start. We begin by boycotting Black Friday, staying at home and enjoying a quiet day. We should also decide that we will only buy Christmas gifts for children under twelve years of age, and then too just a few simple things, rather than the expensive “must have” items that advertisers thrust on us. We must force a shift from a consumer economy to a sustainable economy

And we should use the holidays mainly to spend time with people, enjoying the old-fashioned art of socializing.

POST SCRIPT: The weird speech of film supervillains

That Mitchell and Webb Look addresses something that always puzzled me, which is the oblique way that film supervillains speak.

Thanksgiving musings

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

(I am taking the day off for the holiday and reposting an item from Thanksgiving of last year. I would like to wish everyone a happy Thanksgiving holiday.)

For an immigrant like me, the Thanksgiving holiday took a long time to warm up to. It seems to be like baseball or cricket or peanut butter, belonging to that class of things that one has to get adjusted to at an early age in order to really enjoy. For people who were born and grew up here, Thanksgiving is one of those holidays whose special significance one gets to appreciate as part of learning the traditions and history and culture of this country. As someone who came to the US as an adult and did not have all the fond memories associated with the childhood experience of visiting my grandparents’ homes for this occasion for a big family reunion, this holiday initially left me unmoved.

But over time, I have warmed to the holiday and it now seems to me to be the best holiday of all, for reasons that have little to do with its historical roots.

The first thanksgiving was supposedly held in 1621, sometime between September 21 and November 11, as a secular feast by the newly arrived pilgrims and was based on British harvest festivals. But this feast wasn’t repeated and so cannot be considered the basis of the tradition. The modern thanksgiving tradition began with Abraham Lincoln in 1863, in an effort to unite a nation divided by the Civil War, declaring the last Thursday of November as Thanksgiving Day.

Commercial considerations have also been a part of the holidays with merchants being influential in setting the date. They want it close enough to Christmas so that people associate the holiday as a kick off for the shopping orgy, but not too close or people won’t have a lot of time to shop. President Franklin D. Roosevelt wanted to change Thanksgiving Day to the third Thursday in November so as to lengthen the Christmas shopping season, but that was rejected by Congress and the compromise date of the fourth Thursday in November was approved in 1941 and that has been the date since.

I personally would like to see Thanksgiving shifted a month earlier to the last Thursday or so in October (like it is in Canada), not to lengthen the shopping season, but because there is a long drought of holidays between Labor Day and Christmas, and this would fall nicely in the middle. The weather would also be better for traveling, and it would coincide nicely with a mid-term break for college students.

I mainly like the fact that the holiday has (still) managed to avoid being commercialized and merchandized to death. There are no gifts and cards associated with it. There are no ritualized ceremonies, religious or otherwise, that one has to attend. There are no decorations or dressing up. Although the holiday’s roots lie in giving thanks to god at the end of the harvest season for bounties received, that thin veneer of religiosity can be easily discarded and it is now essentially a secular holiday so no one need feel excluded. The thanks that are offered are just for the good fortune of being with family and friends, and not overtly religious. Our family has traditionally celebrated it with friends, all of whom have different religious heritages but are now secular. No prayers are said. We are just thankful for the opportunity to be together.

Thanksgiving is just a time to get together with family and friends around that universal gesture of friendship, sharing food. And even the traditional menu of turkey, stuffing, potatoes, yams, cranberry sauce, and pies, is such that it is not too expensive, so most people can afford to have the standard meal for a large number of people without going into debt. And although there is much talk of anticipated gluttony, in practice this also seems like just a ritualized and familiar joke, and most people seem to eat well but not in excess. There is also no tradition of drinking too much and rowdiness.

Thanksgiving seems to symbolize a kind of quiet socializing that is a throwback to a simpler, less crass and commercial time. It remains mostly an opportunity to spend a day with those whom one is close to, sharing food, playing games, and basking in the warmth of good fellowship. How can one not like such a holiday?

The only catch with Thanksgiving is that it is immediately followed by the horror show known as the “Christmas shopping season” which involves a disgusting orgy of consumption and waste, with merchandisers and the government urging people to buy things they do not need for people who may not want them.

I sincerely hope that Thanksgiving does not also become corrupted by merchandizing the way that Christmas has. But in our the present spend-spend-spend, buy-buy-buy culture you can be sure that retailers are eyeing that holiday too and it will require great vigilance to prevent it from sliding down that particular slope.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

POST SCRIPT: When evil supervillains meet building safety codes

From That Mitchell and Webb Look.

Free will and the Jesus people

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

In the manner of TV soap-opera introductions, we ended yesterday with my talking with three Jesus people, a middle-aged woman, a middle-aged man, and a younger man, who had just made the astounding claim that if god did something, anything, (like the mass murder by drowning of infants) it could not be evil by definition, even if that same act would be universally condemned if done by a human.

The middle-aged man and the young man then started to make a point about free will and original sin. You know, the story of how god created Adam and Eve to have an idyllic life in the perfect Garden of Eden. He also gave them free will but told them not to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. But of course, they did, and that was the original sin. For that one sinful act, god has inflicted suffering on all the animals (including humans) for all of time. Seems a bit excessive, no? God seems to be the sort who holds a grudge for a l-o-o-o-n-g time, worse than any gangland boss.

This theory of original sin and free will is a big deal for Jesus people. They think it explains everything although in reality combining free will with belief in an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent god creates insoluble logical contradictions. Religious people assert that God gave us free will, and the reason why there is sin and suffering is because people use their free will to do the wrong things. But they also say that we suffer because of Adam and Eve’s original sin which has resulted in us being ‘born in sin’ (a truly weird idea) and thus cannot avoid sinning, which doesn’t quite square with the idea of us sinning because we are abusing our free will.

This theory also does not explain the suffering caused by diseases and natural disasters unless you also assume that god is using those devices to punish the people who abuse their free will in order to sin. This is a tough argument to sell, especially in the case of sudden mass catastrophes like tsunamis and earthquakes that wipe out entire swathes of people, including infants who are hardly in a position to exercise their free will at all, let alone in malevolent ways.

The middle-aged guy created a hypothetical scenario by pointing to a man who was coming down the street. Suppose he suddenly decided to cut off my head. His point seemed to be that if the man did this, he would be using his free will for evil purposes and that was because of original sin.

But I decided to take that hypothetical in another direction. (Religious people can be easily led into logical contradictions because they think that they are being disloyal to god unless they assign every superlative power they can imagine to Big Daddy in the sky.)

If that guy beheaded me doesn’t that meant that god wanted me to be beheaded? No.

But doesn’t god know everything even before it happens? Yes.

So doesn’t god know beforehand that this man plans to behead me? Yes.

Doesn’t god have the power to stop him from beheading me? Yes.

So if god knows that I am going to be beheaded and has the power to stop it but does not do so, doesn’t that mean that god wants me beheaded? No.

Why not? Because the murderer was using his free will for evil purposes because of original sin.

As you can see, religious people have a set cycle of arguments, and when logically cornered will simply hit the ‘reset’ button and start the cycle all over again, even if it makes no sense or has been refuted or even flatly contradicts what they said just moments before.

I must admit that I was having a lot of fun but unfortunately had to go for my class. But before I left, the man made his last pitch to save me from hell by listing all the sins that I need to avoid committing to save me from going to hell. Things like murder, stealing, lying, lust, …

Hold on there, I said, what’s wrong with lust? Lust is great! You should try it. And with that last comment, I left.

It was a hilarious half-hour or so. Was I having fun at the Jesus people’s expense by pointing out the absurdities that arise from their beliefs? Absolutely. I have said before, when I am talking about religion with people personally, I tend to be non-confrontational, gentle even. But when people stop me on the street to try and convert me by telling me that I am going to hell unless I worship their genocidal god who has these strange ideas about free will, then I think they have forfeited any right to gentle treatment because they have left the private sphere. They have signaled their readiness to take on the rough-and-tumble of public debate, and should not complain if their views are dissected.

The Jesus people’s attempts to spread their vile message of self-loathing and fear must be combated vigorously. The only reason they have got away so far with spreading their silly message on public streets is because of the misguided ‘respect for religion’ trope that says that as long as people are talking about religion, the fact that what they are saying is utter claptrap should not be pointed out. So we have ignored them. We should instead take the chance to show them the consequences of their beliefs. It may not make them change their minds but it may make them less enthusiastic about spreading their message of fear and self-loathing to unwary and innocent people.

POST SCRIPT: Some Grey Bloke tries to understand free will and original sin

The Jesus people’s love affair with Hitler

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

Continuing from yesterday’s post, in trying to convince me of the existence of the afterlife, the woman who stopped me on the street outside my office suddenly brought up Hitler. Religious people love Hitler because they think he is a winning argument for them. They argue that he was an unbeliever and he did evil things hence unbelief leads to evil. Even if the two premises are true, the conclusion does not logically follow. But even the first premise is false since Hitler was born a Catholic, never renounced it, and even spoke many times in favor of god. In a speech delivered just a year before his death, Hitler says, “I may not be a light of the church, a pulpiteer, but deep down I am a pious man, and believe that whoever fights bravely in defense of the natural laws framed by God and never capitulates will never be deserted by the Lawgiver, but will, in the end, receive the blessings of Providence.”

Some Catholic apologists like Dinesh D’Souza argue that Hitler was secretly an unbeliever who was cynically using religion just to gain support for his appalling policies. But all that shows is that believing Catholics and Lutherans were the ones who supported the Nazi program, hardly a recommendation for religion. Also, when you start appealing to secret motives, you are heading into dangerous ground. After all, using that kind of reasoning, I could argue that D’Souza is secretly an atheist who is deliberately using idiotic arguments as a subtle way of discrediting religion.

Anyway, back to my encounter with the Jesus woman, I was surprised by this development because Hitler, although he almost inevitably makes a cameo appearance in these discussions, is usually religious people’s Hail Mary, the big gun, brought out at the very end when all else has failed. This seemed a little early in the game for him to make his dramatic entry. Also, haven’t these people heard of the decision rule arising from Godwin’s Law?

So I asked, what about Hitler? She said that if there were no afterlife, then he would not get the punishment he deserved and surely that was wrong. I said that she was not making a case for the afterlife but was merely indulging in wishful thinking, hoping that there is an afterlife so that scores could be settled. But her introducing Hitler enabled me to ask her some questions.

Isn’t a god who would condemn people to eternal torment doing something that was even worse than what Hitler did? God wasn’t sending people to hell, they were going there because they had been given the gift of free will and they were choosing to reject god.

But doesn’t god have the power to not send people to hell? Yes.

Then if they end up in hell, that must be because he wants them to go to hell, right? No.

How come? It is Satan who puts them there.

So is Satan more powerful than god? No.

Then why can’t god overrule him? Because he is just. People go to hell because they have abused the gift of free will and rejected god.

But if he has given us the ‘gift’ of free will, why is he punishing us for using that gift in a way that he disapproves? Because he is just.

Doesn’t seem like much of a ‘gift’, does it? What’s the point in giving people free will and then threatening them with eternal damnation if they use that will to make decisions he doesn’t like? Doesn’t that destroy the purpose of giving free will? If we choose to do wrong, it is our own fault if we go to hell.

I decided to move on.

I asked the Jesus woman whether she believed that Noah’s flood occurred. Yes.

In that flood, god deliberately murdered all but the eight people in Noah’s family, including tiny infants. Wasn’t that worse than anything Hitler had done? Didn’t that make god the worst genocidal maniac in history? No.

Why not? Because all those people died because of their sins.

What about the infants? Doesn’t it bother you that god murdered vast numbers of tiny newborn infants by drowning them? What had they done to deserve that awful fate?

At this point, she started making stuff up, the way that religious people do when they have no answer. They think they can get away with this because they assume that the person they are talking to does not know the Bible. The doctrine of original sin that says that even newborn babies are also sinners has always been a tough sell, even for the most ardent believers, and she did not even try to pull that one on me. She instead said that god had immediately gathered up in his arms all the babies who had died in the flood. It is a nice cozy image but irrelevant. A murderer who cuddles his victim immediately afterward is still a murderer, and even creepy to boot. It is also totally fictitious. I told her that the Bible said no such thing. As far as the Bible was concerned, in drowning babies god was carrying out his plan exactly as envisaged and I challenged her to show me where in the Bible it said that god had scooped up the drowned babies.

She was stumped and asked me to wait and went off to get reinforcements from the rest of her group and came back with a middle-aged guy and a younger man. But not only could they not back up her assertion of god’s act by providing me with biblical verses (which I knew they couldn’t) they had no better responses to the questions.

Is murdering a baby an evil act? Yes.

Is drowning huge numbers of babies evil? Yes.

Wouldn’t a huge number of babies have drowned in the flood? Yes.

So why were they worshipping an evil, infant-murdering god? No, because if god does something, it cannot be evil.

This answer was so laughable that I let it go and decided to move on to another topic, which I will describe tomorrow.

POST SCRIPT: Some Grey Bloke tries to understand god’s love and hell

Fun with the Jesus people

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

Last Wednesday, we had on our campus at Case Western Reserve University the promised free distribution of Ray Comfort’s printing of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, with an introduction by him containing his pathetic attempts at combating evolution.

The distribution seemed as if it was being done by community people and not by our own students. I did not get a copy myself but a number of people were gathered at the intersection just outside my office handing out religious tracts. I was stopped by a middle-aged woman who gave me a pamphlet and asked me if I believed in god. I said no. She asked me why not and I said that there was no reason to believe in god.

I asked her why she believed in god and she said that god spoke to her. I said, Really? You actually hear voices in your head? Yes, she said. I asked, What language does this voice speak and in what accent? She said English and added that god would speak to me in my own language and in my own accent. I said that I never heard such voices and that was why I did not believe but since she spoke to god, I asked her to ask god to tell her the serial number of the dollar bill in my wallet to convince me that the voice she heard really was god. She looked pained. That would be mocking god, she said. Why, I asked? It just would and she would not do that. I decided not to press her further on this point

I have found that pointing out logical contradictions or circular arguments never convinces religious people immediately so once you have made your point, it is best to move on and not belabor it. So why do I do bother arguing at all? I am a firm believer that religious beliefs change slowly as a result of people trying and failing, on their own, to reconcile the contradictory beliefs they are forced to hold. So what I do is plant as many seeds of doubt as I can and hope that at least one will take root and sprout and undermine the whole religious edifice.

The best way to do that is to not defend your lack of belief (because religious people don’t really care what your reasons are and don’t listen) but to pose questions to them exploring the logical consequences of their beliefs. Since they care what they think, it forces them to grapple with these issues. This method of posing questions and getting people to figure things out for themselves is known in education circles as ‘inquiry-based instruction’ and is widely used as an effective teaching technique, especially with science, where students often have deeply held, unconscious, and erroneous beliefs, just like religion.

Anyway, back to my encounter with the religious person. She then asked me what I thought would happen to me if I died today. I told her that my usable organs would be harvested and then I would be cremated and that would be it. But what would happen to me after that, she asked? Nothing, I said, that was it. What about the afterlife, she asked. I told her I did not believe in it. She asked why not and I said that there was not a shred of evidence that there was an afterlife, just like she had not a shred of evidence for god, except for the voices in her head. She asked whether I wasn’t scared of being wrong about god and going to hell and suffering torments for eternity. I said I was not worried at all.

I asked her if she had met and spoken to anyone who had died. She said no. So why do you believe in the afterlife? She said the Bible promised that there was one. I asked why I should believe that book more than any other book. She said that it was because it was the word of god. And why do you believe in god, I asked, because of the voices in your head? Yes, and also because the universe has obviously been designed by a god. I said that there were perfectly reasonable explanations of the universe that did not require a god but she was, of course, incredulous that such explanations were possible, and she brought out the usual chestnuts such as ‘the miracle of childbirth’ as evidence of god’s necessity. I decided it was time to move on from that topic too.

I asked her if when Jesus rose from the dead, his physical body also rose. She said yes, of course, because the Bible says he ate fish with his disciples.

So where is his body now? Up in heaven, and she pointed up.

Really, up there? Yes, with Moses and Elijah and all those others who have joined god.

Their actual physical bodies are up in the sky? Yes.

So since they have physical bodies, they must eat and drink there, no? Yes.

So in heaven they have to grow food and cook just like here? Yes, they eat wonderful fruits and other foods.

So that means they go to the bathroom and so must also be having a sewage system in heaven? She looked pained again and said that she did not want to talk about such distasteful things.

But if the actual bodies have been resurrected, I said, then what about the decomposing bodies that we find in graves? She said that after we die, only our spiritual bodies go to heaven at first. It is only at the end of the world, with the rapture, that our physical bodies also rise from the graves (or wherever they are after all that time) and join up with our physical bodies. Since the end of the world has not occurred yet, this didn’t square with what she had just told me about the physical Jesus, Moses, and Elijah and the others currently palling around in heaven in their physical bodies, but I let it go. Maybe they got there early using their frequent flyer miles or elite status or something.

Next: Hitler makes a cameo appearance.

POST SCRIPT: Some Grey Bloke is having trouble with the whole self-loathing thing

Commenter Ray Foulkes introduced me to some funny cartoon videos featuring a character known as ‘Some Grey Bloke‘ that makes some of the points I have been making. Enjoy. And thanks, Ray!

Harun Yahya on evolution

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

In the previous post, I discussed the book The Creation of the Universe (2000) distributed under the name of Harun Yahya, which is the pseudonym of Adnan Oktar, a Muslim creationist based in Turkey. He has now put out an even more expensive 800-page glossy publication called Atlas of Creation (2006) that gives the creationist arguments against evolution. He has not deigned to send me a copy of it as yet, maybe because I am not on lists of biologist academics or I have dropped down in the rankings of worthy recipients. Darn!

They say politics make for strange bedfellows but so, apparently, does religion. Perhaps no group in America is as hostile to Islam as the evangelical/fundamentalist Christians. But this group has also demonstrated that when it comes to advancing their cause, they are willing to forge alliances with almost anyone. We have seen them cavorting with right-wing Israeli politicians in supporting their appallingly repressive policies towards the Palestinians in the occupied territories because they think such policies advance the day of the glorious Rapture. Of course, on that day Jews and all the other infidels will be slaughtered in a bloody rampage by the forces of Melvin. Why would Melvin commit such mass murder? Because he loves us.

Now, adopting the old dictum of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”, American Christians are also joining up with Oktar/Yahya to spread their anti-evolution message worldwide. Scholars have found that Muslim creationists are importing creationist ideas from America to foster their own anti-science extremism in the Islamic world

What is disturbing is that Muslim creationists are not only spreading anti-evolution thinking, but are using it to buttress a virulent form of Islamic fundamentalism that sees the ‘Christian’ west as an enemy. This unholy alliance of supposedly holy groups is going to breed even more extremism.

Islamic creationists differ from Christian creationists in that they are not committed to a young Earth idea. They are willing to accept that the Earth has existed for billions of years. Their range of anti-science views go from demanding that all living species were special creations of god to one in which all species except humans have evolved. But they all denounce the theory of evolution by natural selection as not only wrong but as an idea that has had evil consequences.

As I said in the previous post, Oktar/Yahya’s book The Creation of the Universe (2000) deals mostly with the origins of the physical universe but he has an appendix titled The Evolution Deceit that rehashes the old, familiar, and discredited creationist arguments against evolution.

He says that there must be a creator since all the things that we see could not have occurred by ‘coincidence’ (which is the word he uses for chance), thus ignoring the fact that natural selection is anything but chance but is a highly directed process. He calculates the odds that the base sequences in amino acids and proteins could have occurred by pure chance and writes out the result with a huge number of zeros.

He then reproduces the same bizarre argument about hybrids as Christian creationists, saying that evolution requires a “a bird popped all of a sudden out of a reptile egg” and “the existence of half-bird/half-reptile or half-fish/half-reptile freaks”. Since none of these have been found, evolution must be false (p. 180). He also has the same mistaken idea that a ‘transitional’ form means something less than perfect, saying “Every living species appears instantaneously and in its current form, perfect and complete, in the fossil record.” (p. 184)

Oktar/Yahya has had a love-hate relationship with the intelligent design creationism movement. In his 2000 book, he speaks favorably about ID because they are against evolution. But in a more recent press release, he denounced intelligent design as “another of Satan’s distractions”, since they did not explicitly acknowledge that Allah is the creator of all things but instead spoke vaguely of a ‘designer’ or some kind of ‘force’. Oktar/Yahya has no patience for such wishy-washy euphemisms.

However, ever since the 2005 Dover, PA trial shattered the ID façade that theirs was not a religious theory, intelligent design creationists have been more open about the fact that their secretive designer is none other than (drum roll, please) Melvin. So now Oktar/Yahya seems to be willing to join up with them again.

The Discovery Institute, backers of the intelligent design version of creationism, have seemingly joined forces with Oktar/Yahya, thus finally shedding all pretenses that what they were advocating was a purely scientific idea.

So the Christian and Muslim creationists are joining forces against evolution. But it is only a matter of time before these two groups turn against each other because, after all, Islam and Christianity are fundamentally incompatible belief systems. They each think their own god is the true one and their own book is the one true revelation. They cannot both be right. Allah and Melvin cannot co-exist.

POST SCRIPT: Richard Dawkins on Harun Yahya

Dawkins gives a talk to the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain where he exposes the shallowness of Oktar/Yahya’s book against evolution. Dawkins speaks for 16 minutes and then takes questions from the audience.

Unfortunately, the video does not show some of the images Dawkins projects on the screen that illustrate the ludicrousness of Oktar/Yahya’s claims, but you can see a few of them here.

Islamic creationism and Harun Yahya

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

Some readers may have heard of Harun Yahya, the pseudonym of Adnan Oktar, a creationist in the Islamic world who is based in Turkey, who uses as arguments against evolution the same absence of bizarre hybrids as Duane Gish and Kirk Cameroon, although he differs from them in that he is an old-Earth creationist.

Oktar/Yahya seems to have, like his American creationist counterparts, rich backers who are willing to stay in the background and shell out huge sums of money to advance their beliefs. In Oktar/Yahya’s case it has enabled him to create a large cult-like organization. He has been convicted and sentenced to three years in prison for running a criminal organization. He is awaiting the outcome of his final appeal to the Turkish Supreme Court.

Among other things, he produces and widely distributes free lavishly colored books under his name that propagate the same kinds of creationist ideas that Christian creationists have. Some time ago I too unexpectedly received in the mail such an unsolicited book The Creation of the Universe (2000). This book deals mainly with the physical universe. Like with Ray Comfort’s introduction to Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, I decided to take one for the team and read and summarize Oktar/Yahya’s ideas for the benefit of the blog’s readers.

The book starts out in the introduction by attacking the principle of materialism, that matter and the natural laws are all that exist. He has to do this because all religious people know that since there is no evidence for the existence of god, unless they are able to postulate the existence of mysterious, nonmaterial entities that can act in the universe in unpredictable and undetectable ways, they are lost. Oktar/Yahya simply asserts that the materialistic view has been defeated, throwing in some quotes from the Koran because we all know that no arguments are more powerful than quotes from ancient texts of dubious origins.

The entire book repeats over and over again the same old tired ‘anthropic principle’ argument, that the properties of the universe are so finely tuned to create the conditions for humans to exist that they must have been designed. The name ‘anthropic principle’ seems to me to be too high falutin’ for such a childish argument. A more accurate label would be the ‘Goldilocks principle’ because according to them every thing in the universe is not too hot or too cold, too hard or too soft, too big or too small, but is just right for us humans. Hence it could only have been created by Allah/Jehovah/Yahweh/Melvin/Krishna/_____ (fill in the blank).

As I have pointed out before, the fatal weakness of the Goldilocks principle is why his god goes to all this trouble over such minute details. If god is so powerful, he could create humans to live under any conditions, such as on a planet as hot as Mercury or as cold as Jupiter or without water or oxygen or even food. He could make us able to live in a vacuum.

The book consists of each chapter taking one feature of the universe and arguing that if its particular properties had been slightly different, the universe and life could not exist. Hence god exists. That’s the book’s argument in its entirety.

He also sprinkles verses from the Koran to claim that it predicted scientific discoveries. (Jesus and Mo has a wonderful cartoon on such Koranic ‘predictions’.) He quotes from religious scientists and also quote-mines famous scientists shamelessly, using the anthropomorphic language that some are wont to use, to argue that they too at least implicitly believe in Allah’s role in creation.

He argues that chance or Allah are the only two options. He repeatedly ‘calculates’ the probability that some specific feature could have occurred by pure chance and finds that it is one-in-a-huge-number and thus highly unlikely. He likes to write out these huge numbers in large font in decimal form (sometimes in reverse white lettering on black background) for dramatic effect, with the result that there are an awful lot of zeros in his book: page 39 has 123 zeros, page 108 has 25 zeros, and page 198 has a whopping 950 zeros.

In chapter 1 he says that the Big Bang proves that god exists because it implies a beginning and a beginning must have a creator. Who was the creator? Allah, of course. And not only that, the Koran actually predicted it, when it says “He (Allah) is the Originator of the heavens and the earth.” What more proof do you need than that that the Koran is of divine origin and that Allah exists and created the universe? But he goes on to give more.

In chapter 2, he argues that the physical constants are just the right size to support the existence of the universe. Hence Allah exists.

What if (chapter 3) atoms were not electrically neutral (as they are now) but were positively charged? Why, everything would fly apart and life would be impossible! So the fact that atoms are neutral is proof that Allah exists. Man, that Allah really thinks of everything.

In chapter 4, he hauls out the second law of thermodynamics and argues that the “order of the universe is the most overwhelming proof of the existence of a superior consciousness.” Hence Allah exists.

Another example (chapter 5) is that it is only because the Earth is at exactly the right distance from the Sun that it has temperatures that can support life as we know it. If it had been a little closer, it would have been too hot. If it had been a little further, it would have been too cold. Coincidence? I think not. Hence Allah exists.

Chapter 6 makes the case that the wavelengths of the spectrum of light that reaches the surface of the Earth lie in just the right range to support the chemical processes on which life depends, like photosynthesis, and that none of it is ‘wasted’. What are the odds of that happening by chance? Lots of zeros, baby. Hence Allah exists.

Another example (chapter 7) is that that of water expanding upon freezing and thus ice rising to the top. If that had not been the case, oceans and lakes would freeze solid and kill all life. But luckily for us, there was someone (guess who) who knew exactly what properties water needed to have and ensured that it did.

The electronic structure of carbon is such that it can form covalent bonds (chapter 8). This is so crucial to life that if it could not do so, we could not have carbon-based life forms. Hence Allah must have created this particular electronic structure and hence he exists, yes indeedy!

So that’s pretty much the book. I bet you can’t wait to read it for yourself.

What does Oktar/Yahya say about evolution? I’ll look at that in the next post. But here’s a hint: “I do not like it, Sam-I-Am.”

POST SCRIPT: Primatologist Jane Goodall on The Daily Show

A sweet, gentle interview with a sweet, gentle person. Really, there’s no other way to describe it.

<td style='padding:2px 1px 0px 5px;' colspan='2'Jane Goodall
The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political Humor Health Care Crisis

Transitional forms

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

In the previous post, I said that one thing that keeps creationists from ‘seeing’ the truth of evolution is that their teleological viewpoint makes them think that species in their current form are the aim of creation. If that is the case, why would god bother making anything else? Hence ancestral forms of current species that are unlike anything that currently exist simply have no place in their model.

Another mental block that prevents them from seeing transitional forms for what they are also arises due to this teleological viewpoint. Here they are misled by the very word ‘transitional’, which suggests something less that perfect and on the way to perfection.

In an online debate with Eugenie Scott, the head of the National Center for Science Education, Ray Comfort makes the following jaw-dropping statement where he illustrates this misconception by pointing to what he thinks is the weakness of the theory of evolution:

Nothing we have in creation is half evolved. The cow has a working udder to make drinkable milk. The bee has working apparatus to make edible honey. We don’t find a half-evolved cow or bee. None of the 1.4 million species on the Earth has half an eye. All have the necessary functioning equipment, from the brain, to the teeth, to the eye, to limbs, to reproductive necessities. Everything that we see in creation is in full working order—from the sun, to the mixture of the air, to the seasons, to fruit trees and vegetables, to the animal kingdom—from the tiny ant right up to the massive elephant.

But not only do we see this mature completion in creation; we see it displayed in the fossil record. It reveals that each animal was complete.

I went to the Smithsonian to see the fossils galore, and they were there—millions of fossils that were evidence of special creation. The Smithsonian didn’t have any transitional fossils that proved evolution (staunch believers claim that they have them, but not on display). I also visited the evolution museum in Paris (Grande Galerie de L’Evolution). I took a camera crew, and we spent an hour looking for the evolution exhibit. It didn’t have one. All it had were millions of fossils of fully formed animals that God created (my italics).

This is a perfect example of creationists not ‘seeing’ the evidence for evolution that the rest of us see. It reveals the creationist teleological belief that everything we have now is in its final form and is functioning as designed. The very use of the phrase ‘half evolved’ reveals the deep misconceptions originating from a teleological viewpoint, because that phrase is meaningless unless one sees current species as being in their final, perfectly functioning forms.

In this view, a ‘transitional’ form must be something less than perfectly functioning. What Comfort thinks evolution predicts is that transitional forms should consist of animals malformed in weird ways, like cows with udders that do not produce milk or bees that have not figured out yet how to make honey or human beings with only one leg. This displays a staggering ignorance of the most basic elements of how evolution works. But because Comfort has a teleological view that starts from the end, he cannot see that all of us, even though we are fully functioning and adapted to our present environment, are also at the same time transitional forms even though we don’t know how we will evolve in the future.

Evolution tells us what we evolved from, not what we are evolving to. Every species that lives now or has ever lived is both ‘fully evolved’ (in that it is the result of successful adaptations to its past environments) and a transitional form (in that it will evolve in the future as a result of new environmental pressures). There is no such thing as being ‘fully evolved’ in the Comfort sense of having reached unchanging perfection.

There are only three reasons I can think of for people making the kinds of extraordinary statements that Comfort makes above.

One is, of course, outright stupidity, coupled with ignorance. One should never rule that out.

Another reason is dishonesty, in that they know they are spreading falsehoods about what evolution is but think that saving souls for Jesus compensates for lying to them. One cannot rule that out either. The ranks of religious liars and charlatans are legion.

The third and most charitable explanation, which is what I am suggesting in this series of posts, is that that they simply haven’t been able to make the Gestalt-type switch from the old teleological and Platonic worldview to the modern scientific one. While scientists can look at living organisms and fossils and see them as both fully functioning and transitional, creationists can see only a ‘fully evolved’ object. This is an almost perfect example of what happens when you cannot make the Gestalt switch to see two images while viewing a single object. While scientists can look at the image below and see both a duck and a rabbit, for creationists the duck is still only a duck, and as a consequence, the two pointy-things on the left can only be its bill.

Duck-Rabbit_illusion.jpg

It is quite sad.

POST SCRIPT: Here’s a ‘fully evolved’ ape

From the BBC comedy show Not the Nine O’Clock News.

Why creationists do not ‘see’ evolution

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

One specific creationist religious belief whose origins I have been curious about is the bizarre argument that is advanced by anti-evolution religious people about how the lack of transitional fossils is undermining the theory of evolution. This argument mystifies scientists because of course there are huge numbers of such fossils. The evidence is incontrovertible. In fact, every living or fossilized organism can also be considered a transitional form, since change is constant. It should also be borne in mind that Darwin arrived at his theory without having the wealth of fossils that are now available, basing his arguments largely on biogeography, the similarities in body patterns of animals, embryology, and the existence of vestigial organs. Nowadays, the fossils that keep being found and the relationships that have been discovered between the DNA molecules of species have sealed the case for evolution.

Fossils are extra evidence and the case for evolution would be strong even without them. So why do creationists keep harping on transitional fossils? One reason is because they think that that is their strongest point. They also know that fossils seem more persuasive to the general public because we can actually see them with the naked eye.

But it may be that they are possessed of a deep misconception (like those involving electric current) about how evolution works that prevents them from actually ‘seeing’ the evidence the way that scientists see it. Changing that deep misconception requires a Gestalt-type switch but may prove as hard as getting people to understand that electric current flows in closed loops and is not used up.

A few weeks ago, I had quite a bit of fun with Ray Comfort’s banana argument and with Kirk Cameron’s belief that a transitional fossil is a weird hybrid between two existing species, the latter giving as an example an animal with the head of a crocodile and the body of a duck, which he cleverly calls a ‘crocoduck’. But it appears that I was wrong in crediting him with originating this inspired piece of idiocy. It apparently goes back much further to at least Duane Gish, one of the founders of ‘modern creationism’ (now there’s an oxymoron for you). Biologist Jerry Coyne says he heard Gish give a talk where he showed a cartoon of what he expected a transitional form between a fish and a mammal to look like. It consisted of an animal whose front half was a cow and rear half was a fish. (Jerry Coyne, Why Evolution is True, 2009, p. 47.) Gish’s message, like Kirk Cameron’s, is “Ha! Ha! These wacky evolutionists may be willing believe such crazy things but we are too smart for that.”

In this case, I think that these religious people have a wrong point of view of species that dooms them from the start. Like the pre-Galilean theorists of motion who thought that the end point of motion was what was important, or that of Platonic idealists who focused on the essential unchanging nature of things, they too make the mistake of starting from the end point.

In the case of biology, this translates into a teleological view that sees all the current species as the end point, the convergence if you will, of a grand plan. Hence the word ‘transitional’ does not mean to them an ancestor of a current species that looks different from anything that we currently see, because such things are inconceivable in their teleological model which sees everything as purpose-driven. For them, such an organism would be unnecessary, not serving any purpose. As long as they have a teleological view of the world with its current life forms being representatives of a Platonic ideal, the very word ‘evolution’ will mean something very different to them from what it means to the rest of us.

So what can a transitional form mean to people with that view? The only transitional forms that they can conceive of are the curious hybrids they keep coming up with, like the crocoduck and the cow-fish. Unfortunately, as I said yesterday, even some of the visual images that we have of the process of evolution, such as the one that draws it as fish→amphibian→monkey→human (with the drawing of each showing what a current typical specimen looks like), reinforce this misconception by suggesting that evolution consists of transitions between forms that currently exist.

When these creationists claim there is lack of fossil evidence of transitional forms, they mean the absence of fossils of these bizarre hybrids. It is clear that people like Gish, Comfort, and Cameron are ‘seeing’ the theory of evolution in a very different way from the way that scientists see it, and this explains why they will keep coming up with theories so outlandish that we are often at a loss to know how to even start to refute them.

Until they make that Gestalt switch and see evolution and transitional forms the way that scientists see it, they are hopelessly lost. The duck, for them, will remain a duck.

Another obstacle to creationists ‘seeing’ evolution will be discussed in the next post.

POST SCRIPT: Science vs. religion debate

Thanks to Machines Like Us, you can see the entire recent debate between Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett on the one hand versus Dinesh D’Souza (Roman Catholic), Shmuley Boteach (Orthodox Jewish rabbi), and Robert Wright (whom I have labeled as a religious atheist) on the other. It was held at the La Ciudad de las Ideas in Mexico.