Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast? How 'bout 660?

It's always amazing to rationalists how so many people can just take their brains and cough them up on a spit, and let them be riddled by gibberish. William James noted some of this disposition in his book, The Will To Believe, and how belief- even in insane, palpably transparent BS, often drives the lives of many. Without their idiotic beliefs they'd be nowhere, lost at sea - having to deal with a logical, rational, naturalistic as opposed to supernaturalistic world.

Sometimes it seems to me that certain fundie bloggers are so addled that it's not just six impossible things they'll swallow before breakfast, but more like six hundred and sixty! I mean, humans being ingested by whales (or "great fish" or "sea monsters" or however they want to spin this) give me a freakin' break! What do these bozos think we are, idiots?

Now having shot down their addlepated claim that the person of one "James Bartley" represented a true 'whale swallows man' story, they've now come up with another howler - also easily harpooned (pardon the pun). This one is that ...whoa....there "is actual archaeological evidence" that Jonah existed and lived after being expelled by a whale...or "great fish" or whatever. (In the end, it matters not which entity ingested him, the salient point is a human is claimed to have survived inside its belly with HCl all around!)

However, most interesting is that NO citation is given. In examining hundreds of attributions in the archives of dozens of journals of archeaology I've not come across one single, literal peer-reviewed journal (or title) which mentions any such reference (and the fundie blogger gives none, which is convenient - like his insistence "there is evidence for God all around" - but never giving any details!) Now, let's also be logical here! If there is a credible archaeological account, then by extension, it must also be historical. And yet, not one historian of antiquity: Tacitus, Seutonius, Pliny the Younger, Josephus – none of them writes of any historical character named "Jonah" purported to have been ingested then expelled by a whale, or great fish. How can this be? How can all major historians of the era miss something which surely rivals an alien visitation in its import: a human surviving being swallowed by a whale!

Well, it isn't difficult to fathom. Biblical analyst Isaac Asimov gave a wonderful explanation in one of his books examining the Old Testament accounts, which included not only the Jonah story, but Noah's Ark and Joshua stopping the Sun with his trumpet. As he notes:

"The Book of Jonah is unlike any of the other prophetic books in that it is not primarily a record of the utterances of the prophet. Rather it is a short story, clearly fictional. The hallmarks of fiction rest in its anachronisms and its elements of fantasy. . . .Since the book is fiction, it would be best to consider the "great fish" an element of fantasy, a mythological monster, and let it go at that. . . .Popularly, Jonah's fish is considered to have been a whale. . . .If it was a whale that swallowed Jonah, then we are left with the fact that the only type of whale with a throat large enough to swallow a man is the sperm whale. . . .Sperm whales are not found in the Mediterranean and, in the course of nature, it is completely unlikely that a man should be swallowed by one there, or still further, survive three days and nights of incarceration. . . .All difficulties disappear, however, if it is remembered that the Book of Jonah is a fantasy"

Again, this fully jibes with the Mediterrean historians listed, none of whom recorded any such marvelous account for posterity. Obviously, since "Sperm whales are not found in the Mediterranean". But what's a little rationality to stop a determined believer? They- he, will go on to claim this and other "miracles" happen all the time - well in those olden days- but no more. But they've got it all wrong.

Miracles can't happen, and have never happened! The universe is naturalistic at root, and nearly a thousand years investigation of natural laws discloses no odd divergences. Thus, such monumental violations that would necessitate a supernatural countermanding natural laws or events cannot occur. All such accounts, in whatever ancient book, are intended to be allegories - not taken by intelligent people as actual facts!

Apologists for miracles often confuse a super-physical with a supernatural explanation. I recall one letter-to-the Editor in which the writer claimed that today's lasers would be regarded as a "miracle" by a 19th century physicist. He reasoned that the 19th century physicist "would have derided the laser as impossible or foolish because it would have appeared to violate one or more physical principles".

What were the relevant physical laws existing at the time? Would a working laser - brought back in a time machine to the 19th century- have been considered in violation of those? In fact, it would not. The working laws of light, as a form of electromagnetic radiation, were governed by Maxwell's laws from about 1850 onwards. It is an interesting fact that the laser principle is not in violation of any of Maxwell's laws. This would be empirically verifiable even for a 19th century physicist. For example, using a rotating multiple mirror system - such as designed by Fizeau[1] , the 19th century physicist could verify that laser light travelled at Maxwell's predicted speed of 300,000 kilometers per second (186,000 miles per second).

In short, it is extremely unlikely that any 19th century physicist conversant with Maxwell's laws of electromagnetism, would find the laser "magical" or "a miracle". He would no doubt find it a bit baffling, but only because he was not familiar with all its principles. What if the laser were somehow taken back to a time before Maxwell's laws, say to the early 15th century? At this very early period, the notion of an empirically validated physical law was still two centuries away. Not surprisingly, the inhabitants of that era would have been confounded by the laser, and probably thought it an "invention of the devil", if not "miraculous". However, these perceptions would stem from a fundamental ignorance. In principle, this would be no different from demonstrating a working laser to a primitive Amazon tribe in our current time.

This is entirely a function of the prevalence of magical thinking, whether in our own century or earlier ones. Philosopher of science Milton Rothman comments[2] :

"The ideas of the nonscientist about the nature of the world are little different from those held by the average citizen of the Middle Ages... this is not said in a derogatory way, for medieval ways of thinking are perhaps natural ways of thinking"

And there we have in a nutshell, how so many Americans could believe the sort of unadulterated codswallop that we find permeating their thoughts- from "Satan" (a stupid arcane myth if ever there was one), to "demons", and "Hell" - all of which I have skewered in past blogs. And then there are the never ending fairy stories - or check that, allegories or metaphors which are adopted as facts, and hence become their personal fairy stories.

Six impossible things believed before breakfast? If only we should be so lucky with these clowns! But we have to face the hard fact we (rationalists) confront nearly a third of the American populace still under the sway of medieval or "magical" thinking. No wonder this country is on the decline! And since the educational system also seems unable to also halt the rush to "magicalism" (of which fundamentalism is surely a subset) then we truly are for the high jump, to use Bajan parlance.

[1] James Fizeau perfected one of the most popular early methods of measuring the speed of light by using a rotating, multi-toothed wheel. A light beam was directed through the teeth such that it could rebound off a mirror some distance d away and return. For example, if the wheel had 360 teeth then a turning angle of 1/720 of a revolution would be required for a successful rebound. If it was turned at 27.5 revolutions per second, the time t needed would be:
t = (1/720 rev) ¸ (27.5 rev/sec) = 0.00005 sec, approximately. Now, the speed of light c = (2d)/t, and for d (usually about 7300 m) this would give a value for c near the currently accepted value of 3 x 10^8 m/s.

[2]Rothman, M.:(1988) The Discovery of the Natural Laws, Dover Publications, Inc., New York, p. 199.

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