Saturday, 31 March 2012

Gospel Of Judas.

Page 33 of Codex Tchacos, the first page of the Gospel of Judas.
Nope. This isn't an April Fool joke. There really IS a Gospel attributed to Judas Iscariot.

It was written before 180 CE, when Irenaeus, a bishop of Lyons, wrote a document railing against it. The only known existing copy - a Coptic version which seems to have been translated from Greek and which was discovered in 1970 near Ben Masah, Egypt - has been carbon dated to between 220 and 340 CE.

It is an account contained within the so-called Codex Tchacos, in which Judas relates how Jesus taught him the secrets of Gnosticism because he alone was capable of understanding them, hence his separation from the other disciples. Judas also relates how he was carrying out Jesus' instructions when he identified him to the Roman soldiers, so ensuring the planned crucifixion went ahead. This would explain the curious paradox of it being Judas who ensured that the 'divine' plan for Jesus' crucifixion happened, whilst Simon Peter tried to stop it, yet Judas is despised and reviled as the archetypal traitor and Simon Peter is the 'rock' upon which the Catholic Church is built.

One thing which is interesting about this document, the so-called Euangelion Ioudas (Gospel of Judas), is that it is one of the earliest recorded extra-biblical mentions of Jesus, and yet it's never cited as evidence for the historicity of the biblical Jesus, at least not the traditional citations.

Now, I'm not going to go into the rights and wrongs of this claim or the authenticity of the document. I'll leave that to the biblical scholars and Christian apologists and marvel at the way they incorporate new knowledge without adjusting their opinions in the slightest - always entertaining.

No, what I'm interested in are the answers to a couple of questions:
  1. Given that this is the ONLY surviving copy of any of the Gospels, on what basis can it be excluded as false or mistaken, compared to the ones which are accepted by Christians as true and accurate?
  2. If it can be so excluded, why can the other Gospels not be excluded on the same basis?
Hint: evidence-free assertions and statements of personal belief are not evidence. Nor can the Gospels (any of them) validate themselves by claims of authenticity.

Christian Democracy.

Have you noticed how a few words just never seem to crop up in the Bible at all. Words like:

  • Democracy
  • Vote
  • Equal/Equality (as it applied to humans one with another)
  • Consensus
  • Parliament
  • Election (as it applies to the selection of representatives

Quite simply, the idea of democratically elected parliament and government was unknown to the Bible's authors and was entirely missing from their concept of what a government should be.

The governments in the Bible are exclusively authoritarian, consisting only of kings and self-appointed priests and 'judges' and, in Roman times, Emperors and Governors. The whole system of government is rigidly autocratic, authoritarian and accountable to no one but themselves. Those who controlled the power controlled the people and woe betide anyone who challenged that authority to the slightest degree.

Even today, churches are usually authoritarian, autocratic and, where there IS some form of council, it is self-appointing. Never do they elect representatives from amongst the congregation, never do the officials have an electoral mandate and never are they accountable to the membership for their decisions.

To be fair, this tendency is not just restricted to Christianity and its various sects. Exactly the same can be said of Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist and Shintoist communities. Power is self-appointing and accountable to no one.

Not surprisingly the cultures heavily influenced by these autocratic principles gave rise to governments based on them. The history of the Middle East, North Africa, Europe, Central Asia, India, China and Japan has been one of despotic autocracies with change of ruler often involving assassination or military conquest resulting in one despot replacing another and life for ordinary people continuing much as before with no say in anything to do with the political, social or economic life of their country.

David Cameron. Liar For Jesus
Is it any wonder then that religions have usually been promoted by the ruling elite and latterly by the political right, with their ideas of human inequality, elitism and authoritarianism? What better form of government for the conservative right than an autocratic government based on 'Christian values' like autocracy, theocracy, a stratified, hierarchical, elitist society, freedom from accountability and power untrammelled by the need to consult the people and ask for their permission to govern.

Government of the people, by the people and for the people is nowhere to be found in any religious book. Not in the Bible, the Torah, the Qur'an, the Vedas or anywhere. The concepts of liberty, equality and fraternity - the founding principles of modern democracy - are alien to all mainstream religions and almost all minor cults. Democracy and political freedom are anathema to religion.

Democracy is not a Christian concept and has never been a part of Christian teaching. A government based on the Christian principles to be found in the Bible would be a 1930s-style Fascist dictatorship. No wonder it is enthusiastically advocated by the political right.

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Friday, 30 March 2012

Why Should I Be A Vegetarian?

This will no doubt surprise my readers and followers on Twitter, but there is something I'm not sure about.

I'm not a vegetarian, but should I be?

You see, I know all living things are related and I can make a case for all living things being respected and having the right to life. I understand and can follow the logic of Richard Dawkins' illustration of why we should accord our great ape cousins at least some of the rights we grant ourselves. For those who haven't read this, it goes as follows:

Suppose you could hold hands with your parents, and they with theirs, and that you could keep doing that back through time to several million years ago back to the ancestor we shared in common with the other great apes so we have an unbroken sequence of humans, proto-humans and apes, at what point would you say this generation should have full human rights but their parents shouldn't? The only logical answer is to say they all should have because at every generation the difference between them and their parents is indistinguishable. There is no point at which there was a sudden change of species and so never any basis for assigning different legal rights.

Now reverse that process and come forward in time to each of the great apes. If the common ancestor had full human rights, where in the chain up to the other present day apes would you take them away? The same logic applies: there is no point at which you would have any basis for making that decision.

So why don't modern apes have human rights?

That's Dawkins' argument, and I can't see any flaw in it. But I also can't see why it's restricted to the apes. Why does it not apply to all the simians, to all the mammals, to all the cordates, to all animalia, protozoa, plants and fungi? Exactly the same argument applies. We can form the same imaginary line of ancestors going back as far as we wish and then forward again up the line of another species.

So, simply taking that legalistic argument which is the basis of my knowledge of how we are all related and all part of life on earth, I can't see why I shouldn't be a vegetarian. But I also can't see, based only on that argument, why I should eat plants either. In what sense, and at what point in the above argument did they cease to have rights?

And at what point in those sequences did cannibalism change into whatever the opposite of cannibalism is. (Actually there doesn't even seem to be one so I'll coin the term 'annibalism' for the act of eating another species.)

So, clearly that argument is flawed somewhere.

The flaw is that we are trying to apply human morals and cultural ideas of rights to other species who may have no such notions because there has never been a benefit to them to evolve the means and mechanisms for developing them. Even if they did have similar ideas, there is no reason they should be the same as ours; it would be arrogant to presume they should be.

Evolution, and so the existence of these different species, depends to some extent on them eating other species and other species eating them. Without this there would not be different species in the first place. So, a better biological argument for not being a vegetarian is that it's unnatural. We evolved because we eat other species.

That's one argument, but I think a stronger one can be made by looking at the history of the megafauna and flora in Europe, Australia, North America, etc. The evidence is not conclusive but, in all of those areas when modern Man first appears on the scene, there is evidence of a mass extinction of many of the larger mammals and birds, and sometimes of plants like trees. One explanation is that humans hunted these to extinction or felled the trees for fuel or for agricultural land, or even by exterminating an essential species needed to propagate the plants.

There is also a counter-argument that it was climate change which was the more important factor and climate change which also made human expansion possible, though this merely seems to include human expansion in the argument for climate change so humans don't escape entirely scot-free from a share of the blame. We only need to look at the recent history of the North American buffalo and the passenger pigeon to see examples of it.

Look now at the vast herds and flocks of cattle, sheep, pigs, chickens, ducks, goats, etc. which now cover so much of the land? Where would these species be if they had not been both good sources of meat and fairly easy to domesticate, and where would we be without them? The probability is that we would still be hunter-gatherers, just like the people who helped exterminate the other megafauna, and would have exterminated these species as well by now.

Where are the large herbivours of post-glacial Europe? Several of them are living on our farms.

From the point of view of the genes of humans and of sheep, for example, it has suited both sets of genes to form an alliance. There are now vastly more sheep and vastly more humans than there would ever have been without this alliance. Because we eat them, sheep have survived a probable extinction some 25,000 years ago.

The last argument for vegetarianism is that slaughtering an animal for food is cruel and inhumane. Let's look at this a little closer.

Firstly, everything which lives will dies eventually. For a wild animal there are several ways to die. None of them are pleasant.

Every animal which doesn't die from an accident or from disease will either be killed and eaten or die slowly from starvation and dehydration due to old age making it impossible for them to eat or drink.

Many animals which die from an accident will die because of infection, in other words because of bacterial action and poisoning often involving the formation of a large and painful abscess. Most badly injured animals will actually be killed and eaten of course, as will most old and infirm individuals and those that aren't will usually starve quite slowly.

Evolution has never produced a nice way of dying simply because a dying animal can't pass on whatever is making the process less unpleasant. There is nothing which natural selection can select for because dying pleasantly doesn't help an animal survive. In fact, dying unpleasantly is more likely to do that because it is an incentive to avoid it.

None of these methods of dying is better than being killed in a slaughter house, and not even by being killed by having its throat cut. Being killed by humans for food is probably one of the least unpleasant ways of dying. This is quite simply an indisputable fact of life, unpleasant though that thought might be.

So, help me out here. Is there a strong argument for vegetarianism which I haven't covered here, and is there a counter-argument I haven't rebutted it with?


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Help! What Should I Do?

You know, you'll never believe this but the other day in Oxford I met someone who said he had heard about a man who could do amazing stuff. Some of the things he could do included:
  • Flying. He can just rise up into the air at will and fly about, so he can walk across water without even getting wet feet.
  • Turning things into other things. He can turn water into beer or anything else like wine.
  • Curing sick people. He can tell what's wrong with people, even when they don't know they're sick, and can cure them just by touching them. They even get better just by touching his clothes.
  • Letting people live for ever. Apparently he said if you believe in him you'll never die.

I thought that sounded interesting, if more than a little far-fetched, so I asked if I could meet this man. Turned out this person had never met the man himself but had just met someone who had heard about him and wanted to live for ever, so he decided he would tell people about him because he sounded like a really special person. No, he didn't know for sure if anyone who told him about this man had actually met him either, but he thought they might have done otherwise how would they know about him? (I didn't bother to point out that it could have been in exactly the same way the he knew about him.)

In fact he had heard that the man had died. Apparently the police had arrested him because they didn't like the crowds he was attracting and didn't want people to live forever (you know what they're like!), and he had died in custody, then his body had mysteriously disappeared. The whole world had gone dark, apparently, though neither of us could recall that actually happening, at least not in our life-time. But by-the-by.

He even had a drawing of him, and he looked quite genuine. So, should I believe this man I met and take his word that this man exists?

I've heard that there is this technique for telling the truth in these situations. It's called 'faith'. This method is said by it's advocates to be the best of all ways to decide if something is true. Apparently, if you believe things like this by 'faith' they become truth and you don't need to keep wondering it they are true or not. Also, no one should disagree with you otherwise they are oppressing you and disrespecting your 'faith', which of course, you're entitled to hold on to.

The trick is to tell yourself that the story must be true and that anything which makes it look like it might not be must be wrong and probably just a test. Good 'faith' must always pass this test, otherwise it's a personal failing on your part for not having enough 'faith' and for which you should be ashamed. And, you can tell yourself that it must be true - otherwise, why would you believe it?

If I have this 'faith' do you think the story told me by the man I met in Oxford will be true? Or should I lack 'faith' and look for some other way to discover if his story is really true? You know, things like evidence from eye-witnesses, people he actually cured, photographs, police records - that sort of thing?

Or should I just ignore this story as so unlikely as to not be worth even considering to be true, and so risk not living for ever?

Such a difficult decision! What would you do?

Oh! I forgot to say, this man is supposed to have lived in Essex about 100 years ago... or was it Palestine about 2000 years ago? I can never remember which, but that should make any difference, should it?

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Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Pull The Other One Matthew!

Michaelangelo, Isaiah
One of the core beliefs of Christianity is that the birth of Jesus was foretold in the Bible. By circular reasoning, they say this:
  1. Proves Jesus is the Messiah
  2. Proves the Bible is their god's word because it makes accurate prophesies

This neatly ignores the fact that the stories of Jesus' birth were written by people who knew the prophecies and wanted us to believe Jesus's birth was prophesied by the then well-known prophets. The prophet they quote is of course Isaiah.

Let's take a look at this prophecy.

And it came to pass in the days of Ahaz the son of Jotham, the son of Uzziah, king of Judah, that Rezin the king of Syria, and Pekah the son of Remaliah, king of Israel, went up toward Jerusalem to war against it, but could not prevail against it. And it was told the house of David, saying, Syria is confederate with Ephraim. And his heart was moved, and the heart of his people, as the trees of the wood are moved with the wind.

Then said the LORD unto Isaiah, Go forth now to meet Ahaz, thou, and Shearjashub thy son, at the end of the conduit of the upper pool in the highway of the fuller's field And say unto him, Take heed, and be quiet; fear not, neither be fainthearted for the two tails of these smoking firebrands, for the fierce anger of Rezin with Syria, and of the son of Remaliah. Because Syria, Ephraim, and the son of Remaliah, have taken evil counsel against thee, saying, Let us go up against Judah, and vex it, and let us make a breach therein for us, and set a king in the midst of it, even the son of Tabeal:

Thus saith the Lord GOD, It shall not stand, neither shall it come to pass. For the head of Syria is Damascus, and the head of Damascus is Rezin; and within threescore and five years shall Ephraim be broken, that it be not a people. And the head of Ephraim is Samaria, and the head of Samaria is Remaliah's son. If ye will not believe, surely ye shall not be established.

Moreover the LORD spake again unto Ahaz, saying, Ask thee a sign of the LORD thy God; ask it either in the depth, or in the height above. But Ahaz said, I will not ask, neither will I tempt the LORD. And he said, Hear ye now, O house of David; Is it a small thing for you to weary men, but will ye weary my God also?

Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. Butter and honey shall he eat, that he may know to refuse the evil, and choose the good. For before the child shall know to refuse the evil, and choose the good, the land that thou abhorrest shall be forsaken of both her kings. The LORD shall bring upon thee, and upon thy people, and upon thy father's house, days that have not come, from the day that Ephraim departed from Judah; even the king of Assyria.

Isaiah 7:1-17

(Love the prickly pear cactus not introduced to the Middle East from the
Americas before the Sixteenth Century. Another prophecy?)
Isaiah then writes a lot of dire apocalyptic stuff about flies and bees and shaving (honestly!) and a man rearing a cow and some sheep. In the next chapter he takes a couple of paragraphs to boast about impregnating a prophetess (no ordinary woman for Isaiah) claiming God told him to write in her with his 'man pen' (Isaiah 8:1-3). But let's not delve too far into Isaiah obvious ego mania here but just stick with this particular prophecy of a virgin conceiving and bearing a son who will be called Immanuel.

Firstly, this is quite probably a mistranslation. The original Hebrew text uses the term almah meaning 'young woman', that is, a girl who had not reached puberty. The Hebrew for virgin is bethulah. It has been argued that these two terms are synonyms but they are not. Almah would not be used to describe a sexually mature virgin and an almah may not necessarily have been a virgin. Almah clearly refers to the girl's physiological state and bethulah to her physical condition, or more precisely whether her hymen is intact or not.

So, when we see:

But while he thought on these things, behold, the angel of the LORD appeared unto him in a dream, saying, Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost. And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins.

Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.

Matthew 1:23

we can be sure that Matthew was using a Greek version of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, in which the Hebrew alma had been wrongly translated as παρθένα (parthenos). And this is a fairly good indication that he was trying to make sure his story had some scriptural basis and also that he was more familiar with Greek than with Hebrew.

Another problem with Matthew's use of this 'prophecy' is that nowhere else in the Bible is either the Messiah or Jesus ever referred to as Immanuel or Emmanuel.

But that is not the main problem with this prophecy.

The 'prophecy' very clearly, in the context of Chapters 7 and 8 of the Book of Isaiah is dealing with immediate events. Indeed in Chapter 8, almost casually, Isaiah refers to what seems to be his son by the prophetess whom he impregnated with his 'man pen', as O Immanuel. But the entire point of the prophecy seems to be that while this child is still young the enemies of Jerusalem will be defeated. And surely, for the supposed son of the Christian god, there would never be a time 'before [he] shall know to refuse the evil, and choose the good' (Isaiah 7:16) would there?

But even that is not the major objection to this being a prophecy about Jesus, whom, so it is claimed, was sent to Earth to provide mankind with henceforth the only way to salvation and eternal life in Heaven.

The main objection is: if God had already decided that a Messiah was what mankind needed, and that this was the way he was going to do it, why did he wait so long before providing that means? Biblical scholars date the 66 books of Isaiah as written by several authors between the eighth and sixth centuries BCE with the relevant Chapter 7 written in the eighth.

We are expect to believe that, having decided what mankind needed was a saviour Messiah to be sacrificed for our sins, and having told Isaiah to tell us about it, this 'omnibenevolent' god then waited another 800 years before providing it!

Pull the other one...

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Tuesday, 27 March 2012

God's Body

What's this strange passage from the Christian Bible all about?
Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.
Genesis 1:26-27
Think about this for a moment. Oh, I know die-hard Christians will say this refers to some sort of 'spiritual' image or likeness, whatever that is, but that can be easily dismissed. The word 'image' refers to something you can see. At a stretch it can mean a mental picture of something. So it very clearly means in the physical likeness of this god; looking like it, and whoever else it was referring to by 'our image'.

So from this we can be fairly sure that, if it's not a mistake, whoever wrote this thought this god (and the others) looked like a human.

But why do humans look the way they do?

Firstly, adult humans come in two types, male and female. They have quite different reproductive organs with different functions (about which more later). They also have slightly different pelvic skeletons to do with these reproductive functions.

Humans have heads with the main control centre of the nervous system in it. Their head also has sensory organs for seeing, hearing, tasting and smelling, and openings for food and an airway for eating, drinking and breathing.

What would an omniscient god need sensory organs and a central nervous system for? What would it need to eat, drink and breath for, and what would happen if it stopped eating, drinking or breathing? Presumably it wouldn't die because it's omnipotent, isn't it?

So, if this god wouldn't need a head what has it got one for?

Humans have chests with lungs and a heart in and ribs to protect them and to allow it to expand and relax to move air in and out of the lungs. They have this because they need to breath in oxygen and breath out carbon dioxide so their bodies work. They have a heart to pump blood around the body to take this oxygen to the rest of the body and to bring carbon dioxide back to the lungs. This blood also takes nourishment around the body.

What would an omnipotent god need a chest with lungs and a heart for? If this god wouldn't need a chest, what has it got one for?

And what does it have on the front of this chest it doesn't need? Does it have male or female breasts?

What does it need an abdomen for if it doesn't need to digest food, excrete urine and faeces and filter impurities, toxins and dead blood cells?

What does it need arms and legs for, and a musculo-skeletal system for locomotion? If it is omnipresent it has no need for movement. Why would it need a covering of skin for protection and temperature regulation and something to grow hair and nails from?

And which set of genitalia does it have; male or female? And what does it need them for if it doesn't reproduce like mammals do?

In short, why would an omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent god who lives somewhere other than Earth have a body fitted for living and reproducing in an Earthly environment with Earth's gravity, for finding shelter and food and mates and avoiding predators? And why would it look like a mammal of the anthropoid family?

I wonder if whoever wrote that passage got it wrong and meant to say:
“Let us make a god in our image, in our likeness, so we can claim it said we may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

So men created a god in their own image, in the image of men they created him; male they created him because they weren't female.
Genesis 1:26-27
(Honest version)
That's probably what they meant. It's the only thing that makes sense unless they were very simple and, with the arrogance of ignorance and the over-confidence of the second rate, assumed they must be a lot like gods.

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Sunday, 25 March 2012

Memes And Genes: A Small Difference

Reading the introduction to Susan Blackmore's "The Meme Machine" by Richard Dawkins, I came across a superb illustration of how memes can act just like genes and can give rise the a different phenotype.

Supposing a Martian geneticist visited Earth and carried out a study of humans, one thing would almost immediately recognised as a phenotypic difference between males. He would notice that some males have foreskins and some do not.

This set me thinking about how said Martian might interpret this and how this could lead to scientific discoveries maybe new to Martian science, some of which might be counter-intuitive and hard for a Martian to believe.

To avoid some people's delicate sensitivities in these things, let's call these Type A and Type B males.

If this Martian geneticist knew nothing of human cultures and religions or about the memes by which we inherit these things, it would appear exactly as though this condition was genetically inherited. By and large, Type A males would have Type A fathers and, in those instances where they were not, looking at their grandparents might show interesting patterns of inheritance:
  1. Maternal grandfather has the same Type as the grandson but the paternal grandfather has the other Type.
  2. Paternal grandfather has the same Type as the grandson but the maternal grandfather has the other Type.
  3. Neither of the grandfathers has the same Type as the grandson.
So what would our Martian make of this?

He would probably conclude that there is a complicated pattern of inheritance which doesn't fit the simple dominance/recessive Mendelian pattern but, in the absence of intermediates between Type A and Type B, which might indicate several genes being involved, this would be puzzling.

One solution he might hypothesise is that there is some unstable genetic 'toggle' operating, switching between the two Types but neither of which has a strong advantage so is not being selected for or against. This unstable gene can fairly frequently mutates back and forth between the two.

This would explain why he sometimes found Type A men with Type B father and grandfathers, Type B men with Type A father and grandfathers but mostly it appeared to be a case of perfectly straightforward inheritance from father to son.

Now, suppose our Martian geneticist decided to broaden his study and look at the frequency of Type A and B males in different parts of the world. In some places like the Middle East he would find almost universally Type B. In fact he might think he was fortunate he hadn't just studied men from that part of the world in the first place otherwise he may never have come across Type A.

In other places like Japan he might have discovered they were all Type A with Type B being as common as hen's teeth.

But in some cultures, like India, he would have discovered a mixture of Types with a fairly strong pattern of inheritance where sons were almost invariably the same as their fathers.

And in other places like Europe and America there would have been a much more confused pattern like I have outlined above. The chances of finding a man for which there was no clear-cut (excuse the pun) pattern of inheritance would be much greater here. Does the hypothesised genetic toggle operate more frequently here yet hardly at all in India, China or the Middle East?

And even more puzzling would be the close link between the relative frequency of the two Types and skin colour in some areas but not in others. Puzzling indeed, and grounds for much more detailed research and testing of competing hypotheses, and even different schools of thought developing amongst Martian geneticists.

Until a genius Martian geneticist who had recently read a paper on 'culture' and suddenly made a connection, hit upon the idea of the condition not being a genetic condition at all but a cultural thing. Bingo!

But how does culture affect male genitalia?

A quick experiment to examine a large number of male children at birth and again after a few days, a few weeks and a few months and problem solved. It's the child's parents who are getting someone to mutilate some of their sons, and usually because his fathers had been mutilated - but not always. It's not genetic at all but cultural. No matter how absurd the idea of parents having their children mutilated for no particular biological reason might seem, the evidence for it is clear. All that remains now is to explain why on Earth (sorry) they are doing it.

What's happening here is that mother and father usually have the same culture as their parents had and that is mostly the predominant local culture. In areas like India where there are mixed cultures but intermarriage is rare there can be a mixture of Type A and Type B but they are usually inherited from their parents particular culture. In other places like Europe and America, intermarriage is more common and, in those cases there is no clear rule about which parent's culture will predominate.

And then there is the fact that cultures themselves change, so, in a rapidly-changing culture, such as we have in the developed world, although the grandparents may have believed in mutilation there is no guarantee that their children will. And this illustrates the difference between memetic and genetic evolution. We can choose which memes we pass on and we can change our own memes. Our genes are fixed for us by our parents who have no control over which they pass on to us.

The Martian equivalent of a Nobel Prize for the discovery of replicators which are not genes but can closely mimic them. And a whole rash of research papers and books on the development of childhood mutilation in response to culturally inherited superstitions in a sentient species, and then on the development of superstitions in an evolving memetic culture.

Of course this is just a fantasy. Any alien species capable of getting to Earth and carrying out scientific research on us would almost certainly be aware of memes and how they can induce otherwise bizarre behaviour like religions in an otherwise rational and sentient species.

Moon's Origin. Have I Missed Something Here?

Findings Cast Doubt on Moon Origins - ScienceNOW:

I confess to being puzzled by the above article from Science NOW. The argument goes:

Most scientists believe Earth collided with a hypothetical, Mars-sized planet called Theia early in its existence, and the resulting smash-up produced a disc of magma orbiting our planet that later coalesced to form the moon.

One way to test the hypothesis is to look at the isotopes of particular elements in rocks returned from the moon. Atoms of most elements can occur in slightly different forms, called isotopes, with slightly different masses. Oxygen, for example, has three isotopes: 16O, 17O and 18O, indicating differences in the number of neutrons each nucleus contains. Compare any two samples of oxygen found on Earth and you'll find the proportions of 16O, 17O and 18O isotopes are almost identical in the two samples. The proportions found in samples from meteorites and other planets like Mars, however, are usually different. So if you find that a sample has the same oxygen isotope composition as one from Earth, then it's very likely the sample came from our world.

Previous research has established that the oxygen isotope composition of lunar samples is indistinguishable from that of Earth. Since 40% of the moon is supposed to have come from Theia (which presumably would have had a different isotope composition), this might spell trouble for the giant impact hypothesis. But it's possible that Earth may have exchanged oxygen gas with the magma disk that later formed the Moon shortly after the collision, explaining why the results are the same.

In the new research, published online today in Nature Geoscience, geochemists led by Junjun Zhang at the University of Chicago in Illinois, together with a colleague at the University of Bern in Switzerland, looked at titanium isotopes in 24 separate samples of lunar rock and soil. The proportion of 50Ti to 47Ti is another good indicator of whether a sample came from Earth, and, just as with oxygen, the researchers found the moon's proportion was effectively the same as Earth's and different from elsewhere in the solar system. Zhang explains that it's unlikely Earth could have exchanged titanium gas with the magma disk because titanium has a very high boiling point. "The oxygen isotopic composition would be very easily homogenized because oxygen is much more volatile, but we would expect homogenizing titanium to be very difficult."

I'm no cosmologist, but to me it makes perfect sense for the resulting planet and the accretion disc of resulting magma to be fairly well homogenised on impact rather than the accretion disc being derived mostly from one or the other planet, so I would have thought a result showing the the proportions of 50Ti and 47TI being indistinguishable between the lunar and earth samples was a good indicator of a common origin rather than evidence against it.

But maybe I've misunderstood something...

'via Blog this'

Friday, 23 March 2012

C.S.Lewis, You Cannot Be Serious! 3

The Argument For Morality. The third in a series looking at C.S.Lewis' arguments for the Christian God.

This argument can be dismissed fairly easily. In essence it goes as follows:

  1. Objective morals can only come from God.
  2. Objective morals exist.
  3. Therefore God exists.

Objective morals can only come from God. Of course, Lewis was writing and broadcasting before the discovery of memes as units of cultural inheritance. Like Paley with his watch analogy, which he devised before Darwin had discovered a far more vicarious and logical explanation for the appearance of design in living things, Lewis was not aware of a perfectly rational explanation of a cultural origin of morals and of their evolution and the evolution of cultures containing them.

But even allowing for that excuse, there is no real excuse for Lewis simply dismissing natural explanations for morals out of hand, and there is no excuse for his leap to the conclusion that the only god on offer is his own favourite one, even if he had established his first premise.

I have blogged previously about how this mistaken model of the origin of human morality leads us to expect a pattern of human cultures which is at odds with reality in Xeno's Religious Paradox. Lewis, as a scholar in Greek, Roman and Medieval history, must have been aware of differences in morals between societies and changes in those morals over time, yet he chose to ignore that.

Although he was notoriously insular, only leaving Britain once as a WWI soldier to fight briefly in France before being repatriated wounded, he cannot have been unaware that non-Christian countries also have morals which are objectively no better or worse than those of Christian England. Unless he was assuming, as was common for the English upper classes in those days, that the English had the best morals and the cultural superiority given them specially by an English-speaking god, therefore other cultures and other moralities could be dismissed and ignored as irrelevant.

But leaving that aside, C.S.Lewis' reasoning is little more that a God of the Gaps argument - because he can't think of, or doesn't know of, an explanation for the origin and development of morals in human culture, it must have been the locally popular god.

Objective Morals Exist. The circularity in Lewis' reasoning is astoundingly obvious and breathtakingly audacious. Our morals must be objective because they come from God; they must come from God because they are objective. Come on! Really!

So, does God tell us it's wrong to hurt babies and mug old ladies because it is wrong, or is it wrong to hurt babies and mug old ladies just because God says so? If the former, from what higher authority does God derive that knowledge? If the latter, in what way is the arbitrary and capricious whim of a god objective? If morals are objective and come from a god, there must exist a standard by which this is measured and the god must be constrained by that standard. And who or what set up that standard?

In fact, in attempting to fill the gap with a god, Lewis merely moves the question back one and we are left wondering where the god gets objective morals from. An infinite regress of higher gods, perhaps? Just as the argument from first cause begs the questions, what caused the first cause? Or why can the first cause argument be suspended when it suits? so Lewis' argument doesn't answer the question it purports to address.

In fact, what we have is exactly what we would expect of cultures, including moral codes and ethics, if they evolved from a common ancestor by an evolutionary process driven by local environmental conditions which included the presence in the meme pool of superstitions and notions of local or tribal gods and supernatural spirits. Like an evolving family of species, we would expect common basic features and regional differences produced by local environmental conditions, and this is precisely what we see.

None of this requires the inclusion of supernatural magic in the explanation merely to fill the gaps or, more likely in the case of C.S.Lewis' argument from morality, to arrive at the desired conclusion in order to rationalise a belief for which there was no objective evidence. And nor are we left with an infinite regress of origins and no real answer to the question.

But how well that pandered to the English desire to believe we had the best morals because we had the right god, just so long as we ignored the fact that Lewis' argument was no less valid for any god in any culture with any set of morals which they believe their god had given them and which were therefore 'objective' morals. No, it was much more satisfying to sit back in smug self-satisfaction secure in the knowledge that an Oxford don had confirmed that we were paragons of Christian virtue surrounded by countries who didn't quite measure up, and others beyond the Pale who had no idea of right and wrong and who were lucky to have us there to civilise them, as God had intended.

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Thursday, 22 March 2012

C.S.Lewis, You Cannot Be Serious! 2

The Trilemma. The second in a series looking at C.S.Lewis' Christian apologetics.

The trilemma argument says you must choose between believing Jesus was one of:
  1. Lunatic.
  2. Liar.
  3. Lord.

It would be doing Lewis an injustice to blame him for thinking up this appallingly dishonest argument all by himself because it was used at least as far back as the middle of the nineteenth century by preachers like Mark Hopkins, John Duncan, Reuben Archer Torrey and others, but his or not, C.S.Lewis found it to be a nice little earner, and got a BBC Radio series and a book, Mere Christianity, out of it.

It has been described as "The most important argument in Christian Apologetics" by other Christian apologists like Peter Kreeft. No! Seriously! I have certainly heard it delivered almost verbatim by some Anglican bishop or other on BBC Radio 4's Thought For Today; a religious interlude which is inserted for some unknown reason in an otherwise serious morning news programme. Nice work if you can get it.

Of course, all Lewis is doing here is producing an extended version of the false dichotomy fallacy. This fallacy is where the proponent of an otherwise unsupportable idea tries to present it as a choice between that and something completely absurd, or as the only reasonable choice. You see this used a lot when creationists attack science expecting you to believe that if science is wrong about something, the only alternative is to believe their favourite locally popular god must have been responsible. It only works if you fall for the idea that: a) science is wrong and; b) there is no other possible explanation, like a different scientific explanation, a different god, etc.

All the 'Trilemma' does is present a third option, a false trichotomy, in the hope that you won't think of a fourth, fifth or sixth, or more.

For example, there are at least two more which could (should?) be added:
  1. Made Up.
  2. Legendary.

Reading the Bible, which is, after all, the primary (indeed, only) source of any information about Jesus, and which Lewis himself used as his source of information, and seeing the several confused and often contradictory accounts of his life and teaching in it, the most vicarious explanation is one of these two, not one of the three Lewis presents as the only choices. I have previously blogged about these muddles and contradictions here and here.

This is also borne out by biblical historians, few, if any, of whom would argue that: a) the Gospels were written by four different eye-witnesses to the accounts they describe; or b) that they were written contemporaneously with those events. There is very clearly development of a legend either based on a real figure or on one derived from several Jewish activists and teachers onto which the idea that he was a manifestation of the Jewish god Yahweh seems to have been grafted using old prophecies, mistranslated where necessary, to give it credence.

C.S.Lewis must have been aware of these possibilities yet chose to ignore them and present us with a narrow choice, the first two of which were almost unthinkable in those days - and indeed I know of no Atheist arguments that proposes that Jesus was mad and/or a liar.

In effect, Lewis was arguing that Jesus must be God or you must be stupid. Only stupid people don't agree with Clive Staples Lewis!

And this is a person who earned his living as a thinker!

It might seem surprising that a leading Oxford academic and famous author of children's fairy tales was using the tactics of a snake-oil salesman but, as we sat round our radios in wartime Britain it must have been reassuring to be told we had the right religion and that a renowned Oxford academic no less was telling us so and could prove it with these very clever arguments which only very clever people like him could understand properly.

Like domestic violence, incest, paedophilia, the sex-lives of the upper classes and the Emperor's new clothes, the possibility that an Oxford don and a Christian theologian might be pulling the wool over our eyes was not something decent people spoke about in deferential, class-ridden Britain. It would have been as unthinkable as, say, Lord Louis Mountbatten's wife having an affair with Nehru, Winston Churchill's mother having it off with King Edward VII and the German Foreign Secretary or Bob Boothby having to satisfy Harold MacMillan's wife because she wasn't man enough for him.

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C.S.Lewis, You Cannot Be Serious! 1

C.S.Lewis' renowned 'Argument From Desire' is one Christian apologetic's more popular arguments for the existence of the Christian god.

It is also one of his more laughable arguments, of which there were several.

Briefly, his argument was, "Every desire is necessarily a desire for something, and every natural desire must have some object that will satisfy it. Since humans desire the joy and experience of God, therefore there must be a God that will satisfy our desires."

He stated it reasonably concisely:

A man’s physical hunger does not prove that man will get any bread; he may die of starvation on a raft in the Atlantic. But surely a man’s hunger does prove that he comes of a race which repairs its body by eating and inhabits a world where eatable substances exist. In the same way, though I do not believe (I wish I did) that my desire for Paradise proves that I shall enjoy it, I think it a pretty good indication that such a thing exists and that some men will. A man may love a woman and not win her; but it would be very odd if the phenomenon called "falling in love" occurred in a sexless world.

What is amazing in this argument is that an otherwise intelligent man could have thought it convincing let alone how anyone reading it can.

Sorrowing Old Man ('At Eternity's Gate'); Vincent van Gogh, 1890
Creating God by Desire?
Let's take it clause by clause:

"Every desire is necessarily a desire for something,"

True enough as it stands. I desire a large, heated swimming pool in my back garden. I could also desire spending a term at Hogwarts in the company of Albus Dumbledore. No doubt at all that they are 'something'. There is a lot of doubt about whether they are real or imaginary though, but let's not rush too far ahead.

"..and every natural desire must have some object that will satisfy it."

Hmm... Some problem here, I think. I'm not sure why Lewis includes the word 'natural'. Can there be any other sort of desire? He couldn't be trying to surreptitiously associate the object of any desire with being natural, could he? Perish the thought, for Lewis was an honourable man...

But why does it follow that every desire must have some object that will satisfy it? This is never more than an assertion. Certainly a large, heated swimming pool in my back garden would satisfy my desire. Hold on, I'll just go and check to see if there is one....

Not there, I'm afraid (how did you guess?)

Of course it would satisfy my desire if it were real but, sadly, that doesn't make it real. Maybe the lack of evidence for one just isn't sufficient evidence of its absence. Maybe it's a faith thing. Perhaps if I erected a diving board and dived in....

And as for the term at Hogwarts with Albus Dumbledore? Well, they are written about in books so maybe they are real, otherwise how would the author of those books have known about them? So I should be able to satisfy that perfectly natural desire. All I need to do is pop along to King's Cross Station, London and find Platform 934 ...

"Since humans desire the joy and experience of God, therefore there must be a God that will satisfy our desires."

Same as Albus Dumbledore, Hogwarts, large heated swimming pools and Platform 934 at King's Cross Station, obviously. To be fair to Lewis, he only claims to think this argument is "... a pretty good indication that such a thing exists...".

Of course, C.S.Lewis's 'brilliant' apologetic for the existence of the Christian god is nothing more than our old friend the God of Personal Necessity fallacy - my god must exists because I believe it does, or even the even more arrogant assumption - a god must exist because I want one to.

The only thing amazing about this argument is not so much Lewis' arrogance and intellectual dishonesty in thinking his desire for a god could somehow oblige it to exist, but the credulous gullibility of those who find it convincing.

What's that you say, Mr Lewis? "Unless you teach your moods 'where they get off', you can never be either a sound Christian or even a sound atheist, but just a creature dithering to and fro, with its beliefs really dependent on the weather and the state of its digestion."

Ah! So you can't trust your desires, eh? Oops!

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Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Why We Need To Understand Evolution.

One of the things a proper understanding of evolution teaches us is humility. When I say a proper understanding, I don't mean to the sort of depths to which a research biologist would go, just the sort of level of understanding that you can get by reading a book or two written by people like Richard Dawkins or Stephen Jay Gould for people who don't have degrees in biology.

One of the things you learn is just how wrong your pre-conceptions were. For example, I bet most people who thought they knew what evolution was about, and who hadn't rejected it out of hand on religious grounds, thought evolution was all about some sort of 'ladder of evolution' with life arranged in a hierarchy with less evolved creatures at the bottom, leading up through more evolved creatures like reptiles, then mammals with apes towards the top and humans sitting on the top rung as the most highly evolved, and therefore most superior, of all life. Animals which obviously weren't ancestral to humans, like elephants, giraffes or bears, were just left clinging to the sides of the ladder, looking like mistakes and having no useful purpose other than as food, clothing or ornaments for humans.

The 'social Darwinists' took this one step further and arranged human life in the same sort or hierarchy, with, of course, their own 'race', and even their own social class, being the most evolved, so, sitting right on the top-most rung of this ladder of evolution sat the ruling class of the superior race with the others arranged in descending order below them so the lower orders of the lesser races were little different to the animals below them.

A basic understanding of evolution changes all that. With a basic understanding comes the realization that evolution is all about life diversifying like a branching tree and not one species giving birth to a more highly evolved one which in turn produces another 'new improved' model.

A basic understanding of evolution shows us that all species evolve and that every one is at the top of it's own 'ladder' of evolution with the rungs below occupied only by its direct ancestors. Humans are nothing special at all in this respect and the idea that one human race has more highly evolved skin, hair, noses or brains is incomprehensible. Whatever shape or colour we are is merely the result of our particular evolutionary line. We have all been evolving for the same amount of time. And the same goes for every other species, no matter that it has features which were found in our common ancestors. A lizard is not just an under-evolved mammal; it is a fully evolved lizard. A fern is not a plant that hasn't yet learned to grow flowers and bear fruit; it is a fully evolved fern, no less perfectly adapted to its environment than a rose bush or a daisy.

This realisation is humbling. It is humbling to know that, in the grand scheme of things, you are the result of billions of iterations of the perfecting mechanism of natural selection; that you are the descendant of survivors who never failed the fitness test. But mostly, it's humbling to know that so is everything else.

But there is another way in which an understanding of evolution is humbling; and this form of humility is something we are sadly lacking but desperately need right now.

Evolution is not, at its fundamental level, just about evolving genes. All replicators in a selective environment will evolve. As writers like Susan Blackmore have shown, humans, and to a lesser extent other species, have another set of replicators in addition to their genes. We have memes. Memes are units of cultural inheritance which we pass on to the next generation and, like genes, they form mutually beneficial alliances and 'memeplexes' which can behave in many ways like genes for skin colour, hair type, shape of nose or epicathic eye flaps. And of course a component part of most human cultures is a memeplex we call religion.

Our cultures are inherited in our memes but, unlike our genes which are fixed at conception, our memetic cultures are changeable. We can actually change our memes at will. Maybe not easily but we can do it. We can, if we wish and if we make the effort, move to another country, learn their language and songs, adopt their traditions and superstitions.

And this is where a basic understanding of evolution helps us understand cultures. One of the inherited memes common to just about all cultures is that our particular culture sits at the top of a ladder of cultural development, just like the mistaken view of evolution I've just described. But of course we know that, since all cultures are the result of an evolutionary process, and that all cultures have been evolving for the same amount of time, that all cultures are equally evolved.

This means there is no such thing as a superior culture or an inferior culture. And this explains why people get upset when you tell them your culture is the best and that they should become more like you if they want to be fully developed and 'normal'. It also explains why other people get upset when you assume they would be like you if only they had the where-with-all or that they are just longing to be like you if only their corrupt government would let them. And it explains why people get upset when you tell them they have the wrong religion.

If we could really understand this quite simple fact, it would then be less of a shock to find, when you invade their countries to overthrow their government, they don't dance in the streets and greet you with wild enthusiasm, grateful that you've come to teach them better ways, but that they are more likely to try to throw you out at the earliest opportunity.

In fact it should be no surprise that they react in exactly the same way that you would if they invaded your country or told you you have an inferior religion and need their help to learn the right one.

But then, if we understood that we're are all as good and worthwhile as one another, there would not be these wars and invasions in the first place and people would not kill one another in order to find out who has the best imaginary invisible friend and who is the one who knows the real truth.

None of this should really be surprising since human culture is merely an aspect of human biology and human biology is merely biology, of which evolution is a fundamental principle.

If we could only grasp that simple idea which a basic understanding of evolution and of the memetic nature of human culture can give us, we could end cultural chauvinism. Just as we are beginning to understand that we are better than no one and no one is better than us; that our race and our species are better than no other and none are better than ours, we should be beginning to understand that our culture is better than no other and none are better than ours.

Like us and our species and all living things, our cultures are all winners in the fitness test of evolution.

An understanding of physics and chemistry gave us weapons of mass destruction. An understanding of biology might just prevent us killing ourselves with them.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Creationists' Macroevolution Lie

Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs
Bullfinch Pyrrhula pyrrhula
Linnet Carduelis cannabina
Goldfinch Carduelis carduelis
Crossbill Loxia curvirostra
Siskin Carduelis spinus
Okay, let's look at the difference between so-called macroevolution and microevolution with a little mind experiment. There will be a questions at the end, so make sure you keep up as we go along.

Suppose we have a species of finch living in Europe before the last Ice Age and living on, say, various small seeds, pretty much as the goldfinch does now.

The shape and strength of this finch's beak will be determined by a few genes. Maybe one controlling the size and another controlling the muscles which work it. It really doesn't matter for our mind experiment exactly how many or what each does, we can think of them collectively as a 'beak gene' so long as we remember we are using the term 'gene' here as a shorthand for maybe a collection of genes.

As with any other gene there will be slight variations which will be inherited by offspring and which may make the beak better or worse at eating this or that food.

Now, imagine the ice sheets gradually extending from the north as the Ice Age sets in, and pushing the finch's range south, together with some of its food plants, some of which may well become extinct in the process, forcing the finch to adapt to other foods. Also, as its range moves south it may come into contact with new food plants which weren't available in the north.

Our finch will eventually find itself split into two or three isolated populations: one in the Iberian Peninsula; one in Italy and maybe a third in the Balkans, each with its own distinct mixture and availability of different foods.

These food plants will also be adapting, driven by the presence of our finches. Those seeds which have a harder case won't get eaten and so will produce more offspring with those harder seed cases than the soft-cased seeds and the finches with stronger beaks will be able to eat them, so the beaks will tend to get stouter and stronger. So we may have an arms-race developing in, for example Italy which leads to finches with short, strong beaks good at cracking seeds.

Meanwhile in Iberia, another food plant may be be more successful if it can protect its seed at the end of a tube which only the finches with the thinnest beaks can reach, so another arms-race may develop in which the winning finches are those with long, curved beaks.

And maybe in the Balkan Peninsula another arms race has produced finches which didn't need to change much from the original finch.

Now, thinking back to our 'beak gene': all that has happened in our three populations is that variations in this gene have been selected by the different environments in what creationists would call microevolution. Small steps at a time with each generation being filtered by the environment by natural selection so that gradually, and in line with changes in the finches' environments, differences have arisen in the three populations as each had adapted and become specialised for that populations environment. In one population one set of variant will have come to dominate in the gene pool; in another population, a different set will dominate.

Now, have we got three different species, three races of the same species, or three different subspecies? In fact, at that point in the finch's evolutionary history the question is entirely academic and of no biological significance whatsoever because the populations can't interbreed anyway, being physically isolated.

The test will come when the ice retreats and the populations move north again, together with their food plants. If their food plants don't extend their range northwards than the finches might not either, even if they could. But let's assume they do so.

Let's assume also that the only change in their genomes has been in the 'beak gene'. Admittedly, this is unlikely because other environmental factors will have been moulding other genes which will also be microevolving, but, to illustrate a point, let's just stick with the 'beak gene'.

If that has been the only change than the populations would almost certainly be able to interbreed, so at that point in their evolution they would at best be varieties or maybe subspecies, but what sort of beak would their offspring have? The probability is that they would have some sort of intermediate beak. But what use is an intermediate length stoutish beak when you need to reach seeds at the end of a long, thin tube? What use would it be for cracking tough seed husks?

What we would now have is an environment in which the offspring of those finches which DID interbreed were being selected out by starvation whilst anything which acted to prevent interbreeding would be highly favourable and so variations such as different display plumages, mating rituals, territorial songs, etc., which made interbreeding less likely would be favoured. As with 'beak genes', genes allowing interbreeding are now being selected against and variations of those same genes which inhibit it are being selected for, so changing their frequency in the respective gene pools, just as happened with 'beak genes' because of a different set of environmental forces.

There is another small point here which is worth mentioning. Any 'information' in genes which promote or inhibit interbreeding would have been entirely meaningless before the populations came into contact again. Because there could have been no such thing as interbreeding even calling them genes for or against interbreeding would not have made any sense. They only acquired meaning and so became genes for or against it because of a change in their environment and that change was partly the presence of other genes in their gene pool - the different variations of 'beak gene'. There was no change in the amount of information in the genome but its meaning had radically changed.

In this way, eventually, and probably quite quickly in geological terms, we would have two or three populations of different finch 'species', as defined by taxonomists because they don't normally interbreed. They may well be physically capable of interbreeding still and might do so in captivity.

Now for the questions:

What evolutionary change was involved in this speciation which was in any way different to the microevolutionary changes which caused the variations in beak shape and size?

If you can find one, what biological or environmental mechanism exists which would make that impossible?

These questions should be extremely easy for creationists who insist that microevolution is possible but not macroevolution, because, presumably, they can distinguish between these with ease and understand the mechanism well enough to explain why it can't happen.

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Monday, 19 March 2012

So You Think You Don't Believe In Evolution?

It's really very simple.

The problem with creationists is they've been made to believe evolution is either something really complicated and hard to understand, or else it's something really stupid that no sane person could believe, like monkeys having human babies or crocodiles changing into ducks.

It's neither.

In fact it's something so simple that no sane person could not believe it. There are only three things needed for evolution to happen.
  1. Inheritance of physical characteristics.
  2. Imperfect reproduction of those characteristics to give variation.
  3. An environment which favours some variations over others making it more likely they will be passed on to the next generation.

Does anyone seriously doubt any of these? If so which?

Inheritance of physical characteristics? Haven't you noticed how children usually look quite a lot like their parents? Haven't you noticed how fish tend to have fish offspring and birds tend to have offspring which look a lot like themselves?

Imperfect reproduction of those characteristics? Haven't you ever noticed how you can tell the difference between individuals of many species? How some individuals have different colours to others or different markings? How some individuals are bigger or smaller or faster or fatter or thinner?

An environment which favours some variations over others? Do you think an animal which gets eaten is going to have more offspring on average than one which doesn't? Do you think an animal which finds food more easily is going to produce fewer offspring than one which can't get enough to eat? Or do you think this won't make any difference? How about an individual who finds a mate more easily than another or who rears its young more successfully? Which do you think is going to produce the most descendants on average?

So, if you believe evolution doesn't happen, you have to tell me what is impossible in any of these steps. Simply repeating a dogma in the face of the logic won't work. You have to say why.

If you can't tell me that, you have to tell me why these three simple steps don't lead to more of the physical characteristics which were favoured by the environment being present in the next generation, and so the ratio of those different characteristics changing over time in such a way as to make the individuals carrying them better at surviving and producing offspring in that particular environment?

Because, if you can't, you don't disagree with evolution even though you wish you did and even though you might have a book which says it doesn't happen. In fact, if you can't tell me why this is wrong you're agreeing that evolution not only happens but that evolution must happen if those three simple steps are present.

In other words, if you accept these three simple step occur, then you believe in evolution just as completely as does any evolutionist.

So, anyone willing to tell me why evolution can't happen - and so prove they don't believe in evolution?

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Saturday, 17 March 2012

Saint Patrick

Written words, for some reason, seem to have added power as though truth can exist in a book, especially when written long ago.

St. Patrick was probably the first Bishop of Armagh. Despite countless stories and legends, very little is actually known about him with any certainty. The account of his capture by Irish pirates and enslavement, then subsequent escape, are taken from his Confession which is the second oldest document in Irish history; the oldest being a letter of excommunication from Patrick to the soldiers of King Coroticus (probably Caracticus who may have been Irish or British) for murdering some of his converts and enslaving others.

According to this Confession, which seems to have been written to the British clergy to justify his claim to jurisdiction over the island of Ireland, he was captured by slave-raiders from Ireland and spent 6 years as a slave before escaping and returning to his home in Britain. He was probably the son of a Roman-British official of some importance whom Patrick says was a deacon, himself the son of a priest. If the slave-raid is genuine this would place Patrick somewhere on the West coast of Britain, probably between Cumbria and West Wales. He seems to have been fluent in Latin and may well have spoke Welsh, then the native British language south of the Scottish central valley and possibly north of it.

Ireland had been completely untouched by the Romans and consisted of a loose federation of warring chiefs and petty kings who nominally owed allegiance to a 'High King' of Tara (a sacred hill in Central Ireland) and subscribed to the 'Brehon Law', a Celtic tradition by which contracts, land disputes, marriage, etc, were settled. Patrick describes Ireland as 'in ultimis terrae' (at the ends of the earth) and 'usque ubi nemo ultra est' (as far as where there is no one beyond). The religion was essentially Druidic where the earth was a spirit with whom the High King symbolically united at his coronation, the ghosts of legendary ancestors stalked the land and an earlier people, the Tuatha Dé Danann, still lived underground.

In his Confession, Patrick claims to have been untaught and lacking in fluency, however, the construction of his arguments and his obvious mastery of Latin in the very document in which he makes that claim have led scholars to doubt this claim.

After his putative escape from slavery he trained for the priesthood and was eventually ordained as a bishop. He tells of a dream in which the people from 'Silva Vocluti' near the 'western sea' were calling him to come and walk with them once more, so he decided to return to Ireland and never seems to have left.

Whatever his motives and whatever the truth of his enslavement was, he quickly seems to have gained some authority amongst the scattered Christian communities which had already been established in the island. He had the backing of the Ui Néill with their considerable military and political power centred on Armagh which became the centre of the St. Patrick cult, one of several Christian cults in Ireland. The primacy of Armagh, and with it the cult of St. Patrick was papally endorsed in 1111.

One of the legendary 'contributions' St. Patrick made to Irish social and political development was the integration of the Brehon Law with Christianity, though this can be seen as a virtual replacement. The probably apocryphal story is that Patrick called all the chiefs together and went through each of the traditional laws explaining to them where they were right and proper according to the Bible and where they needed 'improving'. One of the 'improvements' was in stripping women of the right to property, inheritance, political power and divorce which they had enjoyed under the Celtic traditional law, which the entirely male chieftainship seems readily to have agreed.

The strategy Patrick adopted seems to have been the one the Pope told St. Augustine to use in his mission to the Anglo-Saxons. It was the one which, judging by the multitude of local legendary saints found throughout France, Spain, Wales and elsewhere, seems to have been routinely employed by Christian missionaries, that of converting the religion, not the people.

The Christian Celtic church which Patrick established in Ireland gave rise in turn to the Columban Church established by Colum Cille, or St. Columba, who was himself from the Ui Néill and influential among the Scoti tribe which established the kingdom of Dal Riata based in Antrim, in Northern Ulster and extending across the Hebrides into Western Scotland. The term 'Scoti', originally the Roman name for the Irish, so gave us the name 'Scotland'.

Through St.Columba, Christianity was spread to the Picts of Scotland to establish Christianity in the North of Britain from where it penetrated Northumbria, one of the (then pagan) Anglo-Saxon kingdoms which had replaced Roman rule in England. The Irish Church had also penetrated Wales, especially the South West at St Davids and, so it is claimed, had supplied teachers and missionaries to the emerging Christian church in France. It was probably in France where Patrick had trained for the priesthood.

The Celtic Church, although nominally recognising the Pope in Rome as the head of the church, was for practical purposes, autonomous, and had it's own date for Easter, then the most important Christian festival, and an issue which still divides the Catholic and Orthodox churches.

This issue was eventually settled at the Synod of Whiby, ostensibly called to settle the dating of Easter but actually to establish the authority of Rome over the Celtic Church and so the supremacy of the Augustinian Church based in Canterbury over the Columban Church, the political supremacy of the Anglo-Saxons over the Celts and of Wessex over the other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.

One of the supreme ironies of Irish history is that the confiscated land of the last Earl of Ulster and last Gaelic Chief of Ireland, Hugh O'Neil, of the Ui Néill, direct descendent of Niall of the Nine Hostages, was the land upon which the Ulster Plantation was established and through which a concerted effort was made by the English to replace and expunge the Catholic Church which Patrick, through the Ui Néill, had originally helped to established.

But maybe the most interesting thing about St. Patrick, certainly from the point of view of an Atheist and anyone interested in how legends and myths grow and develop, are the many stories and legends about St. Patrick's magical powers. Stories about banishing snakes from Ireland, crossing the River Loire using his cloak as a raft and then hanging it on a bush which promptly burst into flower, of healing the sick and curing the blind, of defeating the Devil in combat. There is no evidence for any of these things; they are fanciful stories woven around a historical figure who has been given exaggerated and elaborate powers which exist only in the imagination of the story-teller.

For example, the story that Patrick banished the snakes seems to have been invented in the 12th century by a Northumbrian monk named Jocelyn, who the wife of the Anglo-Norman John De Courcy brought to her husband’s court in Downpatrick. The Graeco-Roman writer Solinus had already recorded the fact that Ireland was snake-free a good two hundred years before St. Patrick was born.

These stories tell us little of the actual person, but a great deal about the thinking of those who invented them and the culture from whence they came. A culture in which it was believed magic could be done with words and gestures, where animals obeyed the will of humans and a world populated by spirits and ghosts and where the Devil was fully expected to make a personal appearance. When collections of these myths and legends acquire the proclaimed sanctity of holy writ the stories become no more believable and no less magical than when they were invented and written down in the first place and yet many people believe they do.

I wonder what the resulting religion would have been had the stories of St Patrick and his magical powers ever gained the status of holy writ like the legends about Jesus did, instead of remaining attached to the religion and the culture which spawned them.

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