The Moon Isn’t Made of Green Cheese … Is It?

A moon made of cheese is cut, and a wedge is pulled awayEaster has recently passed, and I’d like to rerun a post on the resurrection.

In a fable going back centuries within various cultures, a simpleton sees the reflection of the full moon in water and imagines that it’s a wheel of green (that is, young) cheese.  It’s a tale that we often pass on to our children and that we discard with time, like belief in the Easter Bunny.

But how do you know that the moon isn’t made of green cheese?

Physicist Sean M. Carroll addressed this question recently.  After a few moments exploring physical issues like the moon’s mass, volume, and density and the (dissimilar) density of cheese, he gave this frank broadside:

The answer is that it’s absurd to think the moon is made of green cheese.

He goes on to say that we understand how the planets were formed and how the solar system works.  There simply is no reason to suppose that the moon is made of green cheese and plenty of reasons to suppose that it’s not.

This is not a proof, there is no metaphysical proof, like you can prove a statement in logic or math that the moon is not made of green cheese.  But science nevertheless passes judgments on claims based on how well they fit in with the rest of our theoretical understanding.

Bringing this thinking into the domain of this blog, how do we know that Jesus wasn’t raised from the dead?  The answer is the same: it’s absurd to think that Jesus was raised from the dead.

  • We know how death works.  We see it in plants and animals, and we know that when they’re gone, they’re just gone.  Rats don’t have souls.  Zebras don’t go to heaven.  There’s no reason to suppose that it works any differently for our favorite animal, Homo sapiens, and plenty of reasons to suppose that it works the same.
  • We know about ancient manuscripts.  Lots of cultures wrote their ancient myths, and many of these are older than the books of the Old Testament: Gilgamesh (Sumerian), Enûma Eliš (Babylonian), Ramayana (Hindu), Iliad (Greek), Beowulf (Anglo-Saxon), Popol Vuh (Mayan), and so on.  For whatever reason, people write miracle stories, and we have a large and well-populated bin labeled “Mythology” in which to put stories like those in the Bible.
  • We know about how stories and legends grow with time.  We may have heard of Charles Darwin’s deathbed conversion to Christianity (false).  Or that a decent fraction of Americans thought that President Obama is a Muslim.  Or that aliens crash-landed in Roswell, New Mexico.  Or that a new star appeared in the night sky with the birth of North Korea’s Kim Jong Il.  In our own time, urban legends so neatly fit a standard pattern, that simple rules help identify them.
  • We know that humans invent religions.  There are 42,000 denominations of Christianity alone, for example, and uncountably many versions of the myriad religions invented through history.

Natural explanations are sufficient to explain Christianity.

Might the moon actually be made of cheese?  Science doesn’t make unconditional statements, but we can assume the contrary with about as much confidence as we have in any scientific statement.

Might Jesus have been raised from the dead?  Sure, it’s possible, but that’s not where the facts point.  Aside from satisfying a preconception, why imagine that this is the case?

Photo credit: TV Tropes

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F**kin’ Magnets—How do They Work?

Does God exist?The hip hop band Insane Clown Posse has created an interesting meme with its 2010 song “Miracles.”

Well, not so much interesting as bizarre.  Here’s a bowdlerized version of the verses in question:

Water, fire, air and dirt.
F**kin’ magnets, how do they work?
And I don’t wanna talk to a scientist.
Y’all motherf**kers lying and getting me pissed.

You really want to know how magnets work?  Here you go:

Does God exist?
These are Maxwell’s equations, the foundation of our understanding of electricity and magnetism.  A deep understanding would obviously take some effort, but the point is that this question is no mystery to science.

The song’s not all bad, but it wanders from justifiable wonder at nature (“Oceans spanning beyond my sight / And a million stars way above ’em at night”) to conflating wonder with ignorance.

Saturday Night Live did an excellent parody video.  The lyrics in their song “Magical Mysteries” include, “Where does the sun hide at night? / Did people really used to live in black and white?” which isn’t too far from denying our knowledge about magnets.

Maybe Bill O’Reilly is a Juggalo (a fan of Insane Clown Posse) because he has sounded a lot like them.  In a 2011 interview with David Silverman, president of American Atheists, O’Reilly said, “I’ll tell you why [religion is] not a scam, in my opinion.  Tide goes in, tide goes out.  Never a miscommunication.  You can’t explain that.”

(Uh … can you say, “Wikipedia”?)

And were there no consequences for O’Reilly for being this confused about reality?  He’s been lampooned for these statements (and a later defense, which was equally ridiculous) by people who weren’t his fans to begin with.  But doesn’t his fan base care about reality?  Can they possibly cheer on this willful ignorance?

Despite the contrary opinions of O’Reilly and Insane Clown Posse, learning about how things work can make them more amazing.  Actually understanding how magnets work doesn’t ruin the magic trick, it turns mysterious into marvelous.

Here’s an experiment: go outside on a clear night.  Hold out your hand, arm extended, and look at the nail of your little finger.  That fingernail is covering a million galaxies.  Not a million stars, a million galaxies.  Each galaxy has roughly 100 billion stars.  That’s 100,000,000,000,000,000 stars under just one fingernail.  Now look at how vast the sky is compared to that one tiny patch.

And how does the Bible treat this inconceivable vastness?  “[God] also made the stars” (Gen. 1:16).  That’s it.

The god of the Old Testament is little more than an absolute monarch with the wisdom of Solomon, the generalship of Alexander, and the physical strength of Hercules.  But science gives you the vastness of the universe, the energy of a supernova, the bizarreness of quantum physics, and the complexity of the human body.  The writers of the Bible were constrained by their imagination, and it shows.  There is so much out there that they couldn’t begin to imagine.  If you want wonder, discard the Bible and open a science book.

And this is not groundless myth, it’s science—the discipline that makes possible your reading this across the Internet, on a computer, powered by electricity (and governed by Maxwell’s equations).

Carl Sagan said, “We are star stuff” to suggest that we are literally made from the remnants of stars.  Two adjoining carbon atoms in a molecule in your body might have come from different exploding stars.  Science gives us this insight, not religion.

Second-century Christian author Tertullian is credited with the maxim, credo quia absurdum (I believe because it is absurd).  In other words, no one could make this stuff up.

If you believe anything either in spite of evidence to the contrary or because of it, science may not for you.  But if you want to understand reality to the best of humanity’s ability, rely on science.  C’mon in—the water’s fine!

Science does not make it impossible to believe in God,
but it does make it possible to not believe in God.
Steve Weinberg, Nobel Laureate in Physics

Photo credit: mutantMandias

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Related links:

  • “Miracles” by Insane Clown Posse: video (cued to the magnets verse) and lyrics.  Caution: rated PG-13 for language.
  • “F*cking Magnets, How Do They Work?” Know Your Meme.
  • “Bill O’Reilly You Can’t Explain That,” Know Your Meme.
  • Robert Quigley, “Bill O’Reilly’s Tidal Skepticism Launches ‘You Can’t Explain That’ Meme,” Geekosystem, 2/10/11.
  • A succinct summary of how modern technology makes the marvels of Jesus look pathetic is here.

Word of the Day: Hyperactive Agency Detection

Does God exist?  I doubt it.February 12 is Darwin Day, the birthday of Charles Darwin.  In honor of Darwin’s 203rd birthday, let’s look into a term that’s related to both evolution and religion.

Imagine an early hominid in the grasslands of Africa.  He hears a rustling in the bushes—is that a cheetah or just the wind?  Should he run away or ignore it?

There are two kinds of errors.  Suppose our friend thinks it’s a cheetah and runs away … but he’s wrong.  This is a false positive.  He’s crying wolf.  There can be a cost to this—our timid hominid might have been frightened away from a water hole.

But consider the other error.  The hominid might think it’s the wind in the tall grass … but he’s wrong.  This is a false negative.  The cost is obvious—he likely becomes a predator’s lunch.

Given the disproportionate consequences for guessing wrongly, natural selection seems to have selected for caution.  As a result, early man may have developed a “hyperactive agency detection device”—an overactive tendency to see agency (that is, intelligence) in nature, even where there is none.  The HADD may also be where we detect patterns in things—superstition, concluding that odd events are more than coincidence, or even conspiracy theories.

If this gave early man the ideas of spirits of the dead and gods, this may help explain where early religion came from.

Photo credit: Simon Varwell

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How Science Works (and How Christianity Thinks it Wins)

Christian apologists like to imagine that science's errors give them an advantageThis argument was made at the Creationism conference that I recently attended: science isn’t trustworthy because every time you turn around, it’s changing its mind.

  • The sun goes around the earth … no, wait a minute—it’s the other way around.
  • Here’s the fossil of an early human … no, hold on—that one’s a hoax.
  • Living things hold a special energy or force—an élan vital—that animates them … nope, that’s passé.
  • Every wave needs a medium, so space must be filled with “ether” for light to propagate through … oops, wrong again.

An early theory of the formation of the moon said that the fast-spinning early earth flung out the moon and that the big circular Pacific Ocean basin is where it came from.  The question of origin of the moon has been an active area of research, and the flung-out idea is just another discarded scientific theory—this was one of the areas of research that was lampooned at this conference.

The Creationist argues that when you turn from changeable Science to Christianity’s unchanging God and an unchanging Bible, you have something solid that you can trust.

Science does change, but let’s notice that the size of any change tends to decrease for a single theory.  When the door is first opened to a new field of inquiry—say by Leeuwenhoek’s discovery of single-celled organisms or Galileo’s use of the telescope—new theories based on insufficient evidence try to organize the chaos.  One theory might quickly supersede another, but as theories become better at explaining more, changes becomes smaller.  Here are some examples.

  • Geocentrism to heliocentrism was an enormous change for the model of the solar system.  Our understanding of the solar system continues to change (new theories about why Uranus is tipped on its side or reclassification of Pluto as a dwarf planet, for example), but these are comparatively minor.
  • Evolution revolutionized biology, and the changes in biology today are merely refinements to this theory.
  • The intuitive flat earth model was replaced by a spherical earth, and the observation that it’s actually not spherical but slightly flattened at the poles is a small change.
  • Quantum physics continues to change, but new discoveries are not likely to say that matter is not made up of atoms, which are themselves not made up of protons, neutrons, and electrons.

Christians eager to paint the Bible as an unchanging rock in a sea of chaos don’t seem to understand that they point to science’s strength.  Science realizes that new discoveries may obsolete old theories, and every scientific statement is provisional.  And, remarkably, science is self-correcting.  It finds its own errors.

Science changes, and that’s its strength.  The Bible never changes, and that’s its weakness.

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Don’t Move the Goalposts

Moving the goalposts is a logical fallacyChristian apologists often bring up unresolved scientific questions and usually conclude with, “Well, if you can’t answer that question, Christianity can!  God did it.”  For example:

  • Why is there something rather than nothing?
  • What came before the Big Bang?
  • Why does the universe look fine-tuned for life?
  • How did life come from nonlife?

Admittedly, there is no scientific consensus on these questions.  But a century ago, Christian apologists pointed to different questions if they wanted to put science in the hot seat: Okay, Science, if you’re so smart, how is heredity transmitted?  What causes cancer?  What caused the universe?

And centuries before that, Christianity asked, What causes lightning?  Disease?  Drought?  Earthquakes?  It used these questions to argue that Christianity had answers that science didn’t.

Not only is science the sole disciple that could provide answers, increasingly only science can uncover the questions.  That is, the apologist pretends to inform science of questions that science discovered itself.

If in hindsight “God did it” was a foolish resolution for the questions of previous centuries—the cause of lightning and disease, for example—why offer it now?  Why expect the results to be any different?  Wouldn’t it be wise to learn from the past and be a little hesitant to stake God’s existence on the gamble that Science will finally come up short?

What’s especially maddening is apologists like William Lane Craig putting on an imaginary lab coat and ineptly fiddling with beakers and turning dials, playing scientist like a child playing house.  He imagines himself strutting into a community of befuddled scientists and saying with a chuckle, “Okay, fellas, Christianity can take it from here” and seeing them breathe a sigh of relief that the cavalry has finally come to bail them out of their intellectual predicament.  He imagines that he can better answer questions that his discipline couldn’t even formulate.

This reminds me of the fable about Science scaling the highest peak of knowledge.  After much difficulty, Science finally summits and is about to plant his flag when he looks over and sees Theology and Philosophy sitting there, looking at him.  “What took you so long?” one of them says.  “We’ve been here for centuries.”

Uh, yeah, Theology and Philosophy can invent claims, but Science does it the hard way—it actually uncovers the facts and makes the testable hypotheses.  It gets to the summit step by step along the route of Evidence rather than floating there on a lavender cloud of imagination and wishful thinking.  Religion is like the dog that walks under the ox and thinks that he is pulling the cart.

To the Christian who thinks that science’s unanswered questions make his point, I say: make a commitment.  Publicly state that this issue (pick something—abiogenesis or the cause of the Big Bang or fine tuning or whatever) is the hill that you will fight to the death on.  Man up, commit to it, and impose consequences.  Say, “I publicly declare that God must be the resolution to this question.  A scientific consensus will never find me wrong or else I will drop my faith.”

If the Christian fails to do this (or rather, when he fails to do this), he then admits that when his cherished question du jour is resolved, he’ll discard it like a used tissue and find another in science’s long list of unanswered questions.  That is, he admits that this is just a rhetorical device, stated only for show, rather than being a serious argument.

He’ll just move the goalposts.  Again.

Photo credit: Graham Ballantyne

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