Uh-oh. I get the Tim O’Neill treatment

And it’s a long treatment, so brace yourself.

I’m not going to disagree with his major points, but am just going to say that I think our background disciplines also tend to color our interpretation of the data. As a biologist, this summary resonates perfectly with me.

As already noted in relation to Myers’ rather different form of “agnosticism” on the question, historical analysis of pre-modern evidence simply cannot arrive at definitive answers and can only make structured, evidence-based but subjective assessments of what is most likely.

Evolutionary biology does the same thing: we gather all the evidence we can, sieve through it, and try to make a best assessment that accounts for all of the data with as little subjectivity as possible…but since we’re human, we can’t eliminate it all. We also try to conform our explanations to existing models of how the world works, and I think that’s where we often get conflicts. When I say there’s a question of parsimony here, I’m really saying is that I have a model in my head, and what’s the simplest way to fit these data to it? And as a biologist I have one model that involves thinking about populations and downplaying individuals (individuals make a transient contribution that is then broken up and blended with all the other individuals in the population), while a historian might focus more on specific instances and place greater weight on an individual’s role. So that’s where this bit doesn’t fit as well into my head.

The problem is that the whole of Mythicism, in all of its forms, is based on a fundamental supposition – that a non-historical Jesus form of early Christianity existed – which has no sound evidential foundation. And Occam’s Razor makes short work of this kind of idea.

This is how the Principle of Parsimony applies to the question. It is not merely that, as Myers seems to think, the idea of a single person as the point of origin is “simple” therefore it is most likely. It is that the sources all say that there was a historical preacher as the point of origin of the sect and all of the alternative explanations for how this could be is based on a weak foundational supposition which can, in turn, only be sustained by contorted readings of the texts which are also propped up by still more suppositions.

OK, I agree with the point that “the sources all say that there was a historical preacher as the point of origin of the sect”. If you’re just going to accept the sources as your sole objective data (a fair decision!), then sure, an argument between informed historians is going to converge on a single answer, as he does.

Unfortunately, that collides with my biases as a non-historian evolutionary biologist who tries to answer historical questions about organisms. When we try to identify the last common ancestor of all tetrapods, for instance, we don’t have any doubt that such a thing existed, but the “thing” is not a single individual (it ain’t Tiktaalik!), but a population, or a group of populations, or even a few loosely interbreeding species, and we’re averse to holding up a fossil and declaring, “here is the mother of all four-legged vertebrates!”, because we know it’s not true.

So I look at the Middle East of a few thousand years ago (or even today), and I see a fermenting chaos that is throwing up preachers and prophets all over the place, and to point to one guy and say he’s the one seems to avoid the bigger question of what was going on in that particular environment. Wouldn’t it be better to acknowledge the cross-fertilization and interbreeding of ideas that had to have been going on? This Jesus fellow is just one focus, and given how little we know about him, not even a particularly interesting focus.

I also have to question the reliability of the sources that all say there was one man. Writing that Christianity was produced by a committee, or the complicated interplay of a gang of scholars living in one little town, isn’t as compelling a story as saying it was this one enlightened individual. It’s like how in evolution the popular press seems to be locked into the idea of a “missing link”, looking for that one bone that ties a convoluted history into a pretty package, even as all the biologists try to tell them there wasn’t one link, and it’s not all missing, but parts of it will always be lost to us.

But all right, I can accept that historians have reached a practical consensus based on available evidence that there was a guy named Jesus who triggered a major religious movement 2000 years ago, and that denying his existence is a pointless exercise in pedantry that is often misused by lazy denialists. After all, if some revisionist came along and tried to claim that Devonian sarcopterygians were a fantasy and illusion cobbled up by Carboniferous limb apologists to justify the righteousness of tetrapody I’d also find them annoyingly obtuse.

Another thing: if you’re an atheist already, this is an argument that is totally irrelevant. If we had definitive evidence that Jesus existed — a time machine goes back, snaps a photo and takes a DNA sample — it wouldn’t change my mind at all, nor would it persuade Christians to abandon their faith. If the time machine goes back, and the time travelers flounder about, unable to identify which of the multitude of preachers is “the one”, that similarly is not going to change the mind of anyone about the truth of Christianity. It’s a kind of peculiarly bad pattern of argument that doesn’t resolve anything that matters at all.

I guess if you’re the kind of atheist who wants to say, “Hur hur, Christians are wrong about something, therefore there is no god,” maybe it would appeal. But this is like picking the most fuzzy, vaguely definable claim with known deficiencies of data that you can find and then splitting hairs to find a way to say the other guy is wrong, and doing it in the face of a whole mob of scholars who are telling you that your interpretation is non-standard. Tactically, it doesn’t sound smart.

We might as well be arguing that Jesus was an alien. The whole debate just puts us in a looney-tunes cartoon.

That Wilkins guy loves to rub it in

Yeah, John, I know.

As he points out, this is probably more a difference of timing than Nobelist vs. pop science communicator. A modern university education has had to pare away so much to meet the demands of a population that just wants to get to the point and get a degree and get out and get a job, that a biologist, for instance, can complete a four year program and never once take a philosophy course, take almost no history or language or arts course (we do demand that our students take ONE course in those disciplines), and so you can be a competent scientist with almost no awareness of the breadth of human knowledge.

And then there are right-wing hacks like Jordan Peterson who want to completely abolish the humanities and to worsen the situation even more.

Meanwhile, also in the local paper…the chimes still burn Ted Storck

Long time readers will recall my long battle with Ted Storck, the guy who donated a carillon to the local cemetery two blocks from my home, and played hymns and patriotic songs every goddamned quarter-hour all day long every day to the neighborhood. I wrote multiple times about those fucking bells, bells, bells, bells, bells, bells, until someone finally took an axe to the wires (not me! Multiple residents were annoyed by the incessant noise), and finally, Storck removed the satanic gadget and moved the curse to some town in Arizona, I think.

Storck still writes in to the local paper to complain, though. He is very bitter about how little we appreciated his gift, so when he finds a place with a carillon he has to tell us about it.

The next time you motor south of Minneapolis on I-35 about 55 miles south of the Minnesota-Iowa border, take Highway 3 east about nine miles to Hampton, Iowa.

Miles before you get there, you’ll see the Franklin County courthouse looming about nine stories above the Iowa prairie. It was constructed in the 1880s, and was refurnished a few years ago. First, note the statue of the Lady of Liberty on the very top of the cupola; then see the other four statues surrounding the cupola. Then, go inside to see what a great job the county did restoring the courthouse.

And, then stand outside and wait for the bells to chime the hour, quarter hour, and half hour, followed by a church Carillion bell system answering with a hymn.

When I recently visited my friend in Hampton, he introduced me to a county official who was asked (knowing what happened in Morris) if there were ever any complaints? The official said, “no, the town loves to hear the chiming starting at 7 a.m. and ending with the bells sounding at 10 p.m. ” He added, looking at me, “We are Iowans; why would anyone complain; we are Iowa-nice.”

Wow. So Iowa-nice throws even more shade than Minnesota-nice? I’m impressed.

I’m glad we got rid of those horrors. If we hadn’t, they’d be gone now, because one change in town is that a large apartment complex, East Point Village, was built across the street from the cemetery, even closer to the site of those damnable bells than we are right now. In case you’re wondering, here’s a map: I’m the squiddly thing at Third & College, the bells are the skull, and the new apartment complex is directly across College Avenue from Hell’s Bells former location, on the left edge of the map.

I would hope the apartment residents would appreciate our heroic efforts, but nay, our valor shall be unsung…and also not chimed every quarter hour at them.

Let’s distort history!

That seems to be a right-wing theme. You may recall that a few weeks ago I posted a letter to the editor by Michael Lackey, who is actually an authority on German cultural history in the 20th century — he has published a book on Nazi propaganda of the time, and one of the things he emphasized is how the Nazis fully embraced Christianity, used Christian imagery in their propaganda, and established the legitimacy of their regime by relating it to the dominant Catholic and Lutheran faiths of the people. He compared that to the current Republican adoration of evangelical Christianity, which has been a remarkable enabler of fascism.

Of course, he has gotten pushback in the local paper. The latest is a letter from Evelyn A. Guggisberg, who is appalled that anyone would think Nazis were Christian.

It is unconscionable for Lackey to say what he is saying. When one sees tho that one of his sources is the Washington Post, a noted fake news outlet, it does become understandable why he thinks such folly.

So what is a conservative Christian anyway? A Christian is one who follows Christ. Either you follow Him, or you don’t. For Lackey to say that the Nazis or Hitler were Christian is ludicrous beyond belief! Christ was once accused of being of the devil. It is not uncommon for true followers of Christ to be accused of all kinds of things which are not only not true, but quite opposite.

She doesn’t actually refute his claim with any evidence, because she doesn’t have any. She’s reduced to an argument by definition, rather than any facts. Nazis couldn’t have been Christians, because Christians by definition are all about love and tolerance, and wouldn’t ever be associated with anti-immigration policies, homophobia, racism, discrimination, or police-state violence.

I guess America isn’t Christian then, either.

I kind of stopped reading her letter at this point:

I happen to be an avid Trump supporter. I wasn’t always. It was my faith which brought me around. I happen to abhor perpetual lying. I have come to learn that is what democrats and fake news reporters excel in. How mournful that Lackey still believes such lies apparently. I don’t believe that there ever has been a president in our nation’s history who has been more belittled or lied about than Donald Trump.

This historical denialism seems to be a major strategy on the American Right — in particular, the demonization of the American Left by claiming that they are indistinguishable from Nazis in all of their views and policies, which requires some pretty serious lying about the positions of the Nazis in order to pretend that Bernie Sanders and Adolf Hitler are identical. The video below by Three Arrows is an excellent antidote to that, and also exposes Steven Crowder, Ben Shapiro, and Dinesh D’Souza as the dishonest buffoons they are.

You know, I’m not going to stop making these spider videos, because they’re awesome

I’ve got these spider babies that I now know are exactly 8 days old after they were laid in their mamma’s egg sac, and we’re seeing the transition from spherical egg to lightly sculpted leggy thing wrapped around a spherical ball. So I took some pictures. I also tried putting them on my compound scope and seeing if I could visualize cells in the tissue — it didn’t work. The spider embryos are thick and round and opaque, and further, I was just looking at them dry — I’ve got to work on getting them in a better medium and improving the optics.

Also, the more bloodthirsty of my followers have asked me to catch the babies in the act of feeding, so just to appease them (please don’t hurt me!), I’ve also included a short clip of what happens when I dump a bunch of flies into a tube of baby spiders.

[Read more…]

In which I disagree with xkcd

This is not a perspective I share.

This has not been my experience at all. I plod forward with reasonable expectations of humanity, and am constantly horrified by the worst opinions that I never imagined anyone would hold, flung at me in surprise.

Seriously, did anyone ever anticipate incels? Did you go looking for them? Did you imagine they could exist?

Have our senators read their Bible?

The reading for today is Genesis 18, in which Abraham bargains with God to save the city of Sodom.

22And the men turned their faces from thence, and went toward Sodom: but Abraham stood yet before the LORD. 23And Abraham drew near, and said, Wilt thou also destroy the righteous with the wicked? 24Peradventure there be fifty righteous within the city: wilt thou also destroy and not spare the place for the fifty righteous that are therein? 25That be far from thee to do after this manner, to slay the righteous with the wicked: and that the righteous should be as the wicked, that be far from thee: Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right? 26And the LORD said, If I find in Sodom fifty righteous within the city, then I will spare all the place for their sakes. 27And Abraham answered and said, Behold now, I have taken upon me to speak unto the Lord, which am but dust and ashes: 28Peradventure there shall lack five of the fifty righteous: wilt thou destroy all the city for lack of five? And he said, If I find there forty and five, I will not destroy it. 29And he spake unto him yet again, and said, Peradventure there shall be forty found there. And he said, I will not do it for forty’s sake. 30And he said unto him, Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak: Peradventure there shall thirty be found there. And he said, I will not do it, if I find thirty there. 31And he said, Behold now, I have taken upon me to speak unto the Lord: Peradventure there shall be twenty found there. And he said, I will not destroy it for twenty’s sake. 32And he said, Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak yet but this once: Peradventure ten shall be found there. And he said, I will not destroy it for ten’s sake. 33And the LORD went his way, as soon as he had left communing with Abraham: and Abraham returned unto his place.

And we look upon the Republican party today, as they gather to decide whether to elevate a drunkard who abuses women to the Supreme Court. Peradventure there will be one or two found there who will be among the righteous? Trust not in Susan Collins, who will play with the media as one does with a cat toy. Do not let your faith rest in Jeff Flake, who can speak piously while acting as a loyal servant of Satan. Face the day with equanimity, for either one Republican will find reason and justice in their soul, or the people shall rain upon the Republican party brimstone and fire, and overthrow that party, and all the electorate that grew upon the ground. Justice will be had one way or another.

Also remember the end of that story: the LORD only found one righteous man in Sodom, and he was the kind of guy who’d send out his daughters to be raped by a mob. The LORD destroyed his city. The “righteous” man ends up hiding in a cave near Zoar, drinking himself into oblivion, and fucking his own daughters.

Who says there are no good stories and no lessons to be learned from your Bible?