Mary Midgley wastes our time, once again

At least we can dismiss her latest fluff in the first sentence:

Is physical science – as some people say – omnicompetent? Can it (that is) answer all possible questions?

“As some people say” is one of the more perniciously lazy phrases in the English language. And setting up a straw man as the starting premise of an article is not encouraging. The answer to both is no. We don’t know all possible questions, and science is just a tool. A very successful tool, but one with no alternative in sight (and Midgley certainly offers none).

To be fair, Midgley goes on to chatter about some very unfortunate hyperbole from Nicholas Humphrey, who seems to think we’re close to solving all of science’s questions, which is also an extraordinarily silly statement to make. But I can safely say that her questions are still ridiculous.

I have a new favorite porn star!

It’s feminist, atheist, science-loving Nina Hartley.

I haven’t actually seen any of her movies, and I wouldn’t recognize her if I passed her in the street, but I can still actually call her my favorite porn star, right?

Don’t bother recommending any of her movies; my lust is entirely superficial and only for her brain, and I’m certain I’d prefer a conversation over lunch than seeing her naked. (Not to say anything derogatory about her body, of course, which I’m sure is just lovely.)

I get email invitations

Isn’t this sweet? It’s a polite invitation from Pastor Dale in Ohio, which was also sent to a lot of other skeptics/atheists. It’s so polite and open-minded!

Greetings. I want to let you know about an upcoming project, and I invite any of you or your consumers to participate. I realize your viewpoint is drastically different from ours, but I firmly believe that we all stand to gain from honest open discussion with those who see the world differently from us, and that spending all our time with those of like mind creates intellectual inbreeding. We make no demands of participants except that all treat each other with civility. Thank-you for your consideration.

On October 10, 2010 (2:00 PM Eastern/ GMT-5), Rev. Dr. Joel Heck of Concordia University, Austin will give a one hour presentation on the Book of Genesis, followed by a question and answer session. While the host congregation will be Shepherd of the Ridge Lutheran Church in North Ridgeville, OH, Dr. Heck will give his presentation from Austin via streaming Internet video. We will, in turn, broadcast this presentation live via our website, Anyone anywhere in the world with a broadband internet connection can watch live. We will also allow viewers to comment and ask questions via our chat boxes. The presentation will be recorded for those unable to watch live.

Following the event, we will begin an ongoing indepth study of Genesis. The discussion will take place on multiple levels and locations. We will meet live to discuss it in person on Sunday evenings at 7 PM (Eastern) at Shepherd of the Ridge Lutheran Church. The conversation will be streamed live, so anyone unable to be present can watch and join in the discussion via chat, Twitter, or Facebook. Those unable to watch live can either watch the recorded class or listen online via podcast or just read the questions online and discuss the questions in the comments section. We will also have forums to discuss tangential topics like the age of the earth, archaeology, and more.

Anyone interested is welcome to attend or participate in any way, regardless of beliefs, background, or location.

Get more information and sign up at for updates.

What a nice invitation. You’d almost think they were going to discuss the origin of the world seriously. But, you know, you can’t trust Christians who promise an “indepth study of Genesis”, because behind the polite and friendly mask of the happy reverend is the brain of a drooling idiot. I looked up Dr Joel Heck. He’s…unimpressive.

The first thing you should know about Heck is that he is a signatory to Answers in Genesis’ Affirmations and Denials Essential to a Consistent Christian (Biblical) Worldview. That is a marvellous document. You owe it to yourself to browse through it, just to see how deep into crazy our opposition is nestled. Most of it is general creationist assertions (There are no transitional fossils! The creation was in exactly 6 24 hour days! There was a global flood! Etc.) but my two favorite sections are the more general ones that lay out rules that are fundamentally anti-science, because they deny the possibility of any source of knowledge other than the Christian Bible. Remember these when some AiG young earth creationist tells you that they love science, as Ken Ham has done.

3. We affirm that the final guide to the interpretation of Scripture is Scripture itself. Scripture must be compared with Scripture to obtain the correct interpretation of a particular text, and clear Scriptures must be used to interpret ambiguous texts, not vice versa. We affirm that the special revelation of infallible and inerrant Scripture must be used to correctly interpret the general revelation of the cursed Creation.
We deny that uninspired sources of truth-claims (i.e., history, archeology, science, etc.) can be used to interpret the Scriptures to mean something other than the meaning obtained by classical historical-grammatical exegesis. We further deny the view, commonly used to evade the implications or the authority of Biblical teaching, that Biblical truth and scientific truth must remain totally exclusive from each other and that science could never agree with the Bible.

4. We affirm that no apparent, perceived, or claimed evidence in any field, including history, archeology and science, can be considered valid if it contradicts the Scriptural record. We also affirm that the evidence from such fields of inquiry is always subject to interpretation by fallible people who do not possess all information.
We deny that scientific “evidence” used to “prove” millions of years is objective fact and not heavily influenced by naturalistic presuppositions.

Section 3 is clear: the only source of knowledge about Scripture is Scripture, and science and history that uses any other source of information cannot validly cross-check the Biblical accounts. Section 4 declares that any history or science that does not agree with Scripture is wrong. But at the same time, notice that at the end of Section 3, they announce that they deny that science and the Bible could ever disagree. Why? Because True Science always agrees with the Bible.

It’s a perfect closed loop. They have closed their eyes to the universe around them, and declared the Bible to be the Pole Star of all knowledge, perfect and consistent and uncontradicted by reality by definition. It’s actually extremely creepy to anyone not indoctrinated into their dogma.

So, does anyone expect the Shepherd of the Ridge discussion to be enlightening or interesting in anything other than a psychopathological way? You shouldn’t. It’s going to be a nightmare of ignorant people insisting that non-Biblical information may not contaminate their thinking. And I don’t give a damn how polite their invitation to the skeptical community was.

But wait…so far this is all guilt by association. Maybe Joel Heck got hoodwinked into signing AiG’s stupid document, and he’s really going to make a less exclusive, rational argument.

No, sorry. One of Heck’s lectures has been recorded, and I listened to part of it before the inanity became too overwhelming. He argues for a strictly literal interpretation of the book of Genesis, and his ‘logic’ is perfectly consistent with the Affirmations above. Here are two of the arguments I heard him make:

  1. In parts of the New Testament, the authors clearly announce when a story being told is an allegory or parable. Nowhere in Genesis does the author say, “This is an allegorical account of creation”, therefore, it is literally true.

    That should leave you flabbergasted for a bit. Think about it. I have noticed that neither Banks’ Consider Phlebas nor Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings nor Melville’s Moby Dick include declarations in the text that the stories are fictional tales, therefore, we should seriously consider the possiblity of shape-shifting Balrogs on an epic quest to hunt down a space-whale.

    That’s the kind of logic we’re working with here: the bloody literal-minded smallness of a ‘scholar’ who needs blinking neon lights in the text to figure out the damned obvious.

  2. His other argument was another familiar one from the young earth creationist crowd: if the story of Genesis isn’t literally true, than other parts of the Bible that refer to it collapse into falsehood, too.

    Sin entered the world with the fall of Adam…If evolution is true…then you have death long before you have the first human being, and that makes Paul’s statement in Romans false.

    Well, yes. If it is an article of your faith that nothing died before 6,000 years ago, and someone finds a bone from an animal that died 7,000 years ago, then your belief has been falsified, and all inferences from your failed premise are called into question. The fact that you really, really like that inference that you’ll go to Jesusland after you die is simply not a factor in determining the truth status of the Jesusland assertion.

    But don’t forget the AiG escape clause! The bone can’t be 7,000 years old because that would contradict the Bible, therefore all such uncomfortably disagreeable evidence should be discarded.

I might listen in on the freakish conversation in October, but I doubt that I’ll be able to last long — listening to Heck’s horrible recorded lecture inspired simultaneous somnolence and rage, which is a weird combination not to be courted often. Also, the AiG declaration is extremely limiting, not at all open to discourse about real ideas or evidence, so I can’t imagine what they could actually talk about — I’d be curious to see how the audience manages it.

Some readers here may be familiar with the grad school journal club tradition, where every week a paper is subject to critical examination, and people come prepared with other sources to either savage or reinforce the lessons of the experiments. Do not expect that at Shepherd of the Ridge. Expect the antithesis of that. I admit to some curiosity about what the opposite of a scientific discussion would look like, and here’s an opportunity.

And of course it will be very polite and not rude at all. Some will consider that a virtue to make the whole exercise worthwhile.

My reading habits exposed

The Chronicle of Higher Ed interviewed me a while back, and asked me about my daily read. It’s a bit strange, though…lately my reading has dried up and been replaced by typing. Gotta fix that.


One really troubling thing, though, is the portrait they included — I presume it was made from some photo floating about the web. When did I get that old?

How being a dick probably saved my life

I see that the don’t-be-a-dick tone debate is still going on — I’ve been totally unimpressed with the arguments from the side of nice, not because I disagree with the idea that positive approaches work, but because they ignore the complexity of the problem and don’t offer any solutions but only complaints (what are they going to do, break the fingers and gag anyone they judge as ‘harming the cause’?) I side with Richard Dawkins’ comment on the issue. We don’t need to be trivially abusive, but on subjects we care about deeply, we should express ourselves with passion.

You know I’ve had this recent scary cardiac episode, and as it turns out, I think my own dickish personality probably (not certainly, since we’re dealing with odds here) helped me. There was one moment when I literally had two paths to take, and I chose what I think was the best and most rational one.

This whole hospitalization mess started a few weeks ago, when I was on my daily walk, and I’d gone a little farther and longer than I usually do. I was on my way home, and I felt a dull ache in my chest — nothing severe, nothing acute, just a soreness that spread into my left arm. And I stopped on the sidewalk, and looked ahead, where I was only a couple of blocks from home, and I looked to my right, where the hospital was located only a couple of blocks away. And the ache immediately receded, and I had a little internal debate between the nice angel on my left shoulder, and the dickish devil on my right.

And the angel said, “Oh, look, it’s just a little soreness and it’s going away already. Go home, have a cup of tea, lie down for a bit, and then you can get back to work, no worries. You’ll feel fine.”

And the devil replied with the potent one-two punch of reason and abuse: “You teach human physiology, you moron — you know this is one of the warning signs of heart disease. You’d have to be incredibly stupid to ignore this and hope it goes away…until a heart attack comes along to blow your heart up. Jerk. This isn’t even a choice.”

I thought about it a bit and realized that the remote prospect of dying (it was a very mild ache, and I had no feeling of imminent doom) was nowhere near as persuasive as the thought that I’d feel like an idiot if the iron spike of an infarct did nail my left ventricle at some time in the future, and I’d neglected a portent and hadn’t done the best thing for my health. So I turned right, even though I also felt a bit of a whiner for showing up at a hospital with such a small complaint.

Denial is so tempting: the appeal of choosing ignorance to avoid hard consequences was something I felt strongly — it would have been so nice to go home and pretend there were no problems, and I probably would have been just fine, on the surface. But the heart disease would have continued to progress, and a problem deferred would have become a problem amplified.

That is the virtue of dickishness. It provides the social and psychological penalties that counter the draw of complacency. It’s so easy to go with the flow, to pretend that a thousand issues, whether it’s homeopathy or religion or transcendental meditation or an absence of critical thinking or a lack of concern about our health, are OK because they make people happy, and it’s even easier to demonize the cranky Cassandras and make them the problem, because they make people uncomfortable.

But if bad ideas don’t have immediate consequences to the placid mob, and if everyone is being Mr and Mrs Nice Folk and reassuring everyone that they’re still good people no matter what foolishness they might believe in, where is the motivation to change? A skeptic who thinks their mission is to provide only positive messages and lead everyone along with affirmations and friendliness is going to be an ineffective skeptic.

Mike Celizic is living well, and dying well

Not that I’ve become morbid lately — I feel lucky that I got a potential problem taken care of before it became a crisis — but this story by Mike Celizic is inspiring and terrifying at the same time. He’s a journalist who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer, knows his life expectancy is now measured in weeks, and has gone public with a cancer journal to describe his last days. It’s brave stuff, and the kind of courageous end we should all aspire to.

Note, of course, that the Christian cowards have infested the comments with come-to-Jesus declarations. Let’s be better than that: a person should be able to face his end in his own way, without mobs of evangelizers trying to push fear and unwarranted promises and irrelevant philosophies on the fellow.