Thursday, November 11, 2010

M-Brane Mailbag - More letters from the intray!

This set of letters, left over from last time, is mainly to do with religious issues - hence the biblical image near the mailbag. Seems like lots of people are intrigued by Bible acceptability and credibility issues, questions, especially after going through a number of past blogs, and also the last one on the evangelicals being led into atheism by actually seeing the gap between biblical claims and reality. Here we go!

1) Exactly how much of the bible do you think is history or close to it, and how much is bunk? Or, do you simply say all of the good book is 'fairy tales' or 'fables'? - Cary N., Memphis, TN

First, I have never said ALL of the Bible is a fable or ALL of it lacks any scintilla of historical basis. This again is a trite trick careless critics invoke to try to smear atheists (who are plausibly more well read and educated on biblical issues than they are on evolution!). We know it's a trick, because in the next breath these same critics wonder why we spend so much time quoting the bible if we "believe it's all myth". But they miss the point, as usual! (And also, our quoting the bible - mainly from the NT, is to hold them up to their own principles which THEY are supposed to embrace, like refraining from spotting specks in others' eyes before removing the beams in their own!)

But this is typical. They absolutely detest being forced to come face to face with principles and parables laid out in their own sacred books, so get all hot and bothered that someone like an atheist would have the audacity point them out for their benefit. They can tolerate another believer doing it, but not an unbeliever! So, they confect all sorts of rationalizations, including to try and escape biblical contradictions.

Second, as I wrote many times before, the ancient Hebrew Bible is the one least to be trusted since it is adopted almost book for book from ancient creation myths that first appeared in Babylonia. One doesn't need a vast intelligence, just some basic science and factual support to see most of those events could not have occurred, and were based on metaphor.

For example, talking serpents don't suddenly appear in gardens to tempt people, nor do "evil spirits" suddenly enter the bodies of existing snakes to do so. This is all codswallop. In addition, no one in history has ever been able to blow a trumpet to stop the Sun - as Joshua was purported to have done. This is plain bollocks.

We also know from basic common sense and real world biology, that no human can survive immersed in a vat of hydrochloric acid. We've seen images of some women who've had this stuff tossed in their face, and it burns the skin right off. Imagine now the concentrations (near pH 3) in a whale's belly and how much damage THAT would do! Yet we're asked to just blink our eyes and say a man could survive 3 days there and emerge alive. This is plain nuts. The story is a metaphor, not to be taken literally - and it was around since much earlier Babylonian times.

Noah's Ark is another case in point. Let's say the (alleged) Ark was on the scale of the cruiseliner now being towed into port at San Diego - that is, some 825' long, 225' wide and 13 stories (or 130') high. Its displacement is some 113, 000 tons - so if a weight is added that exceeds that limit, it is going to sink. By the way this is nearly twice the size of the maximum allowed for Noah's claimed Ark, assumed up to 550 feet long, 91.7 feet wide and 55 feet high.

Let's now see if even the giant current ocean cruiser could support pairs of all animals in the world, which also had to accommodate insects, and arthropods (all the scorpions, spiders - including 4 oz. tarantulas, etc). The key factor here is weight, not volume. If the weight is excessive (w> 113,000 tons), the craft sinks - no matter how big.

Assume this event occurred some 4,000 years ago, at which point there were more than 250,000 species of mammals, 200,000 reptiles (including tens of thousands of snakes, lizards) and nearly 18 billion insect and arthropod species. If one pair from each was needed, then we can use a Fermi problem estimate to attain the total weight.

Fermi –type problems have characteristic profiles:

- On first hearing them, nearly everyone is convinced not enough information is given or available

- No one has the slightest inkling what the answer might be at the outset

- Each component can be broken down into sub-problems from which an estimate can be made – mentally or on the back of an envelope, without the help of ‘experts’.

The key element in this type of Fermi problem is to establish a mean weight per species, then multiply that by the appropriate number of species. For the case of mammals, we'll need a mass between the maximum (for giant African elephants) and the minimum (common mice) with many in between (hyenas, jackals, leopards, snow leopards, Bengal tigers, Siberian tigers, Lions, Black bears, Brown (Grizzly) Bears, giant tree sloths, anteaters, Capybaras, Zebras, Horses, Donkeys, etc.). Surveying the distribution of mammal species a fair average per pair mass would be 20.0 kg. The total mass for mammals alone then comes to M = (20.0 kg)(250,000) = 5,000,000 kg . Now, one metric ton = 1,000 kg, so this yields a total of 5,000 metric tons (1 metric ton or tonne, equals 2,200 lbs.)

Allow now that 1/10 that mass (again on average) is feces removed and we add an additional 500 tons which will accumulate per day. Say the craft is going for 100 days then that is 50 thousand tons of just excrement which- added to the actual total mammal mass - yields: 55,000 tons - assuming no pair of mammals dies. Let half this (excrement) amount (e.g. 25,000 tons)be equal to the amount of food needed for the duration and one gets a total effective mass associated with the mammals of : 55,000 tons + 25,000 tons = 80,000 tons

Repeating this for reptiles, and using an average per pair mass here of 10.0 kg each, we get:
M'(av) = (10.0 kg)(200,000) = 2,000,000 kg

or 2,000 metric tons. Most reptiles consume at least their own body mass in food each day and evacuate the same, so for a 100 day estimated journey:

(mass of reptiles + aggregate expelled waste + food) = 2,000 + 2,000 + 2,000 = 6,000 metric tons, and for 100 days this translates to: 2,000 + (4,000)(100) = 402,000 metric tons.

Note here that even before one counts in the insects and arthropods, the craft has sunk! (Assuming a displacement of 113,000 tons - for which we will be generous and say it's in metric tons, each of which is 2.2 times larger than a British ton)

Now, having dispensed with the notion that the Old Testament is anything more than fables, we look at the New Testament. At least here there are certain elements of historicity which at least lead one to suspect that Jesus Christ was an actual historical person - though not a god man as Christians maintain.

Again critical textual analysis and exegesis alerts us that we can't take everything - every word written - literally, as we can't for the OT. Biblical scholar Bart D.Ehrman (‘Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why’, 2005), correctly points out that:

The King James version is filled with places in which the translators rendered a Greek text derived ultimately from Erasmus’ edition, which was based on a single twelfth century manuscript that is one of the worst that we now have available to us!”

Ehrman also correctly points out (op. cit., p. 82) that many of the accounts accepted as fact in the KJV only were deemed so by a fluke - wherein by a chance of history, certain mss. of Erasmus just happened to be handy to the publishers. But these versions lacked the oldest and superior accounts available in the Greek New Testament. Thus, we know by comparison that a number of these (Erasmus accounts, later in the KJV) are unhistorical, including:

- the woman taken in adultery

- the last 12 verses of Mark

- the Johannine Comma

In other quadriforms, there is wide variance between the details given in the respective accounts (for example, the Gospel of John is much more detailed on the trial before Pontius Pilate than the other three gospels) - so we can reasonably surmise that the account in John (since it's not replicated in the others) is more embellishment than history.

Language itself can be treacherous, if one rushes in without the necessary background. For example, in Romans 12:11 Paul urges his audience to "serve the Lord". BUT - the word "Lord" (KURIW) was typically abbreviated in the most credible manuscripts as "KW"- with a line over the top. Unfortunately, some scribes misread this as an abbreviation for KAIRW, which means time. Thus, in those accounts, Paul is exhorting readers to "serve time". Thousands of other such instances also occur.

The whole message atheists have for bible believers then is simple: tread or rather read, carefully and don't just swallow whole every line and word you see literally!

2) In your blog on the evangelical pastors who strayed from their ministries, I trust you're aware most beleivers would simply dismiss them as "false prophets" who've been forecast from the beginning? - Karen S. Fresno, CA

I am aware of that, but it would also be a serious mistake to make such a rationalization (though one would certainly expect such to be made, since else the remaining fundie pastors would have no explanation that they could accept, and this might well drive them into instability). Look at it at face value: previously committed fundagelicals examined carefully their beliefs and came to the conclusion they were poppycock! (This is also what Bart D. Ehrman did). How many have the courage to do that?

These men, rather than being dismissed as "false prophets", are to be commended for seriously questioning their faith and prior beliefs, as well as their bible, and realizing for once that it isn't a whole cloth verity but has to be parsed for echoes of truth or history.

In this regard, the use of this tactic to call questioners "false prophets" is what pscyhologists refer to as reaction formation, or a defense against perceived psychological threats. Rather than examine the account at face value, the dismissive fundie finds it more to his comfort level to reject his peers who question as "false prophets" - despite the fact these pastors are still teaching the WORD as their ministries require! (So how can their ministry-preaching be false?) They just don't believe in it themselves.

3) Explain using some brief examples, again, why certain bible passages can't be taken for scientific truths. - Donald W., Klamath Falls, OR

Certainly. The main thing here is that one must never confuse true, validated scientific principles or findings with words that can only be regarded as such because they happen to appear so. Or, to quote the famous astronomer Owen Gingerich

"Genesis is not a book of science. It is accidental if some things agree in detail. I believe the heavens declare the glory of God only to people who have made a religious commitment"

Let's look at a few examples. We know Gen.:1: 1-5 contradicts modern astrophysics since the Earth had to be formed after the Sun, not before. Thus, the Earth spun off about 1.1 billion years after the solar nebula fully collapsed, and so it could not have come BEFORE the Sun. Indeed, the absence of the central mass of the Sun, or ~ 10^ 33 kilograms, would have meant the Earth- if made with no Sun present- would instantly have been hurled into a direction toward the constellation Hercules at 12 miles per second with no central mass to keep it in check. We can compute this exactly using the basic principles of celestial mechanics.

It is clear from this that Gen.1:1-5 has stated a patent impossibility which violates all known laws of physics and dynamics and is therefore WRONG! It is clear from this that the Bible must be in error, certainly in this one passage – and if here then likely in many other places too.

Consider also this from Hebrews 1: 10-11:

"And, Thou, Lord, in the beginning hast laid the foundation of the earth; and the heavens are the works of thine hands: They shall perish; but thou remainest; and they all shall wax old as doth a garment"

Some have imputed a connection to the 2nd law and entropy from this merely because the connotation is that “nothing lasts”. Or in common parlance, “everything wears out”. Fine, but this doesn’t make a statement about the specific nature of entropy as a scientific concept – only a generic observation that everyone with two eyes and a working brain can make for himself. That things “wear out” has been noted and observed since the year dot. That doesn’t make all those references statements of entropy!

A specific scientific working concept which IS perfectly accurate is the Kelvin-Clausius statement of the 2nd law:

“It is impossible to construct a heat engine operating in a cycle, which produces no other effect than absorption of thermal energy from a hot reservoir – and the performance of an equal amount of work.”

This is elegant and exact, unlike the “Hebrews” text which allows us no wider perspective or to carry out further experiments. The Kelvin-Clausius statement does since it is the basis for developing a heat pump operating in reverse – otherwise known as the refrigerator.

Thus we see that the “perfectly accurate” label cannot be appended to anything which is vague or too general to develop further. It simply can’t apply to a generic reference, like something “wearing out”. This is useless.

4) In your various biblical researches, is there any idea of where the word 'Satan' comes from? How did it originate in the scriptures? - Wesley V., Mesquite, TX

Based on exegesis I did while at Loyola, it appears to have originated in the Hebrew term satan, describing or allocating an adversarial role. (Note: I didn't say "evil" role!) In effect, it was not the term or name for any particular character or individual but rather an attitude. Note the root s'tn means one who opposes, and this is in terms of human activity. But again, note that this need not be bad, and indeed a pure angel (assuming one exists) can be driven by the attitude of s'tn . Maybe a human is imbibing too much with alcohol and-or drugs and plans to drive home intoxicated. Well an angelic being operating under the aegis of s'tn may prevent the human from injuring or killing himself with such folly. Maybe by causing something to go wrong with the carburetor. Thus, s'tn may have been sent to protect a person from worse harm.

In this context, the agent or messenger is not malevolent at all but benign, and indeed beneficial. The putative deity then dispatches these opposers to thwart human plans or in other cases (like the "angel of death" ) to carry out specific plans. Another instance of this opposition for the human's own good (or to carry out God's punishment) is seen in Numbers 22: 23-25, 28-30 and 31-33 where Balaam's s'tn acts as appointed obstructer.

We see the same sort of template in the Book of Job, but while Balaam's s'tn acts to protect him from harm, Job's s'tn plays a much more adversarial role. Indeed, the "Lord" admits that the s'tn incites him to act against Job (2:3).

So how did the perversion of s'tn to an actual evil personality occur? I suspect later Church Fathers, probably Tertullian and Augustine, embellished it into a malign supernatural agent to work into their early teachings on an everlasting place of torment. (Hell). By the Second Council of Constantinople, the Church Fathers had voted and almost unanimously approved "Hell" as the key afterlife destination for punishment. Of course, some one had to operate it, so Satan became the de facto agent (also voted on by a larger majority).

Now let Dante's Inferno and its images take hold, and Voila! Most people believe in some form of Satan connected with the fable of Hell.

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