Fun With Perception!

This is pretty cool! Because our range of perception is so small, the wall of this static image looks like it is moving!

Just a Theory?

Here is the trouble with claiming we should dismiss evolution as ‘just a theory’ and that we should ‘teach the controversy':

The trouble is that ignorance begets ignorance.

H/T Bob Cargill on Facebook.

Some Needed Perspective: Our Pale Blue Dot

Sometimes we need to sit back and take a good look around us.

Milky Way over a lake (location unknown).

To see the vividness of what we are, where we are, of which stuff we are made, sometimes we need a fresh perspective.  When I was living in Portugal, in the small town of Bensafrim, I used to love looking up at the night sky.  There was so little ambient light there, that you grasp the  starscape so clearly it used to take my breath away.

I remember staring up at all the pale dots in the sky, questioning whether someone out there was looking back at our pale blue dot in the same wonderment.

Earthrise: From Apollo 8.

I used to imagine myself floating through space.  I zoomed past the moon, looking back toward the Earth, taking in the immensity of it.

The Mars Orbiter Camera of Mars Global Surveyor took this photo on 8 May 2003.

And then I would keep going.  I would make my way through the solar system, stopping by a few planets here and there.  But always, my eyes fixated on Earth–the place I call home.

The Earth, the Moon, Jupiter, Callisto, Ganymede, and Europa

And maybe I would stop at Mars…

Earth as seen from Mars.

Or I would just keep on going…

Earth as seen from Saturn (via Cassini)

…until I reached the point where Voyager 1 had taken that photo of us as a pale blue dot.

Image from Voyager 1

And when I finally came to rest at this point, the fact that we are so infinitesimal compared to the rest of the universe, I would recall Carl Sagan’s words (from The Shores of the Cosmic Ocean):

Some part of our being knows this is where we came from. We long to return. And we can. Because the cosmos is also within us. We’re made of star-stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.

Cue my serenity.

More on the ‘Day of Jesus’ Crucifixion’ Story

Last week I published a critique of the rather sensationalized claims of the Discovery site about the dating of the crucifixion (see also here, here, here).  Since then Jeff Williams, one of the authors of the study upon which the sensational article was written, has contacted me in an attempt to clarify some of the issues.   Jeff was apologetic towards the sensationalism surrounding his paper and assured me that he been in touch with the author of the original piece and their editor and a corrected story will be published soon.

He also generously sent along his original paper so I could read and comment on it.  Overall, the report is very technical.  The first few pages have nothing to do with the crucifixion, instead the focus is on the methods and previous studies in the region.  I won’t comment on these sections because I don’t know enough about them to comment, suffice to say that I have no direct reason to be skeptical of the information.  However since most of their sources and reference material are behind pay walls, it makes it difficult to determine exactly what their source material stated.  This is problematic, for when I see a statement like ’28 historically documented earthquakes’, I can not be certain if ‘historically documented’ means ‘from the written historical record’ or if they mean more broadly, that is, from the geological record.  If they mean ‘from the written historical record’, then there may be implications to the discovery which may invalidate it or at least draw additional caution, since the written accounts we have from the past were not restricted to telling ‘what happened’.  That said, there are some issues in the paper that do need to be addressed, primarily with the discussion of the earlier paper by Humphreys and Waddington.

First, I’m concerned that the use of various texts, both vital to the conclusions of the paper and to the dating process throughout, seem so uncritical without any sort of discussion with the problems of reception–problems which are so demonstrably important to their arguments.  For example, the reference in Josephus, Wars 1.19.370 (also discussed in Antiquities 15.121), to an earthquake in 31 BCE (discussed on pp. 3-4 of the paper) is a great deal different than the two earthquakes discussed in Matthew at the crucifixion and resurrection.   While Josephus exaggerates a real event (in one account he says 10,000 men perished, in another 30,000 perished) and uses it to make a political point (i.e., about the enemies of the Jews in the region), it is clear that within the context the earthquake has some significance.  But the same cannot be said for Matthew’s account.  And the way with which the accounts appear, sans any discussion on how Biblical authors wrote (imitating earlier texts to express theological messages in new ways) and how these might be different than, say, an ancient historian (without ever addressing the issues with ancient historians) seems a little irresponsible.  One may argue that the purpose of the study was not about the value of ancient texts, but they would be wrong since the value of the “primary source” used (Matthew) is presumed in order to reach the conclusion (that the crucifixion happened on a specific date).

When the time comes to discuss the findings of Humphreys and Waddington, whatever textual evidence they might have had for the earthquake is abused.  Aside form the the fact that the article goes into the criterion of multiple attestation (i.e., that multiple Gospels generally agree), the authors (and conversely, Humphreys and Waddington) don’t use the criterion correctly.  They miss the vital fact that only Matthew recounts an earthquake (and I’ve already laid out my thoughts on one of its possible origins) and Mark, our earliest Gospel, is silent.  Luke, who was aware of Matthew, doesn’t mention an earthquake, and neither does John.  So in this instance the criterion of multiple attestation fails, since there aren’t multiple accounts–and even if there were multiple accounts, none of these would be considered ‘independent’ witnesses since the later Gospels utilized the earlier ones to formulate their narratives and narrative structures.

In addition to this, as Mark has already pointed out, Matthew–the Gospel which mentions earthquakes–does not date the crucifixion to the 14 Nisan, but the 15th (on Passover).  John is the only canonical Gospel which suggests that Jesus is crucified on 14 Nissan, and he does not recount an earthquake.  So how anyone has come to the proposed dates of Friday 7 April 30 CE (14 Nisan) or Friday 3 April 33 CE (14 Nisan) is beyond me (note here that these are not Jeff’s estimates, but those of Humphreys and Waddington), since that would mean that Matthew is not the source of the account by John, but he is not a primary source for an earthquake.

Finally, the use of Acts of the Apostles is problematic for the same reasons that Matthew’s gospel is a problem.  Acts is possibly much later than Matthew (with a new date suggested around the early second century, a la Joe Tyson) and highly influenced by different theological agendas than Matthew would have been.  Still, even if Acts could be authoratatively dated to the first century, the earthquakes in Acts like those in Matthew are theological representations and not historical ones.

These criticisms aside, I am interested in the general conclusions of the piece.  Jeff has made it clear that there are three possibilities.

  1. the earthquake described in the Gospel of Matthew occurred more or less as reported;
  2. the earthquake described in the Gospel of Mathew was in effect ‘borrowed’ from an earthquake that occurred sometime before or after the crucifixion, but during the reign of Pontius Pilate;
  3. the earthquake described in the Gospel of Matthew is allegorical fiction and the 26–36 AD seismite was caused by an earthquake that is not reported in the currently extant historical record.

Of course I am more partial to the third option and I have to imagine that the consensus would fall into that third option as well.  Even the second option would not be out of the question, though I would remove the caveat that it had to have been ‘during the reign of Pontius Pilate’ since, without the crucifixion, the earthquake would have no relevance: the two events are too interconnected in the narrative to remove one or the other.

Also, interestingly enough, this paper is generally contrary to the article written by Discovery, which is refreshing.  I’m not convinced by the arguments overall.  I am not sure why one even needs to include the crucifixion as it is neither relevant to this sort of study or valuable as a tool to date earthquakes.  It just seems rather silly and contrived.  Still, I thank Jeff for clarifying his position with me and sharing his paper.  It was much less incautious than I was led to believe (via news media reporting on his story) and overall I found it interesting, even if I didn’t find it all that compelling.

South Park on the History Channel, Ancient Aliens, and the Public Understanding of History

South Park spoofed the History Channel’s series Ancient Aliens and I have to say, it was both hilarious and scary.  South Park has always been on the front lines (so to speak) of social commentary and satire.  Spoofing silly beliefs is nothing new for the show.  A few years ago it spoofed Scientology and before that it spoofed Mormonism.  Both episodes were extremely entertaining but it showed a side of humanity that frightens me.   In both of these earlier episodes, it explained what these two groups actually believe (and what they believe is just nonsense; see for yourself and watch the videos and then do a little research to verify).  Needless to say, the show Ancient Aliens has decent enough ratings and a large enough following to scare me as well.

But this particular episode is interesting.  As I’ve said before, those who believe that there were ancient astronauts from outer space who came to earth–and that there is evidence for this–are just nuts.  It’s a new form of maximalism, whereby nonexperts pretend as if they know what they are talking about by making up ridiculous conspiracy theories and connecting the dots which can’t exist anywhere but in the fabric of their own imaginations.

To quote from Giorgio A. Tsoukalos (the guy pictured on the left):

“The Great thing about the ancient aliens theory is the fact that we can compare modern acheivements with stories from our ancient past.”  (source)

He goes on to argue quite absurdly that if we can create a two headed dog today, this allows for the possibility that two headed dogs existed in the past, created by ancient aliens.  Yes, that is exactly what he is saying.  Watch the video.

This is either a space suit or a scuba suit. We await the next History Channel series: 'Ancient Deep-Sea Alien Dive Teams'

And then compare this sort of illogical position with that of, say, the Zeitgeisters, who are just as crazy with their theories about astrotheology and the stars.  They say, for example, that the stars line up a certain way and on certain times of the year they do such and such and that is where the ancients get such and such an idea.  It’s all crap.  When you punch in the data to an astronomy program that maps the stars and can tell you about their positions in the past, they just don’t line up the way the Zeitgeist movement claims.  And when you start to factor in that some constellations are fixed and have no bearing whatsoever on the ancient Near East, it collapses the whole argument because the thread of links they correct are so fragile. For example the ‘southern cross’ constellation.  The movie Zeitgeist argues that the southern cross has bearing on the fabrication of the Gospel narratives.  But this just doesn’t work once you do a little fact checking:

The stars of the Southern Cross are just visible above the southern horizon in Alexandria, and in Jerusalem in antiquity although I don’t think it is visible there now. The constellation was, however, not recognized in antiquity, and its four bright stars were included by Ptolemy in Centaurus, which sort of surrounds it11 (bold emphasis is mine).

Why wasn’t the Southern Cross constellation recognized in antiquity? Dr. Swerdlow explains:

That Crux, the Southern Cross, was not recognized as a separate constellation in antiquity is probably because, as seen from the Mediterranean, it is low on the southern horizon and is surrounded on three sides by stars of Centaurus, which is a large, prominent constellation, and the four bright stars of Crux are included as stars of Centaurus in Ptolemy’s star catalogue. It is only when you go farther to the south, so that Crux is higher in the southern sky, that it becomes prominent as a group of stars by itself, so its recognition had to wait until the southern voyages of the sixteenth century.12

In other words, the “Southern Cross” (Crux) constellation could not have served as a basis for the Gospel account of Jesus, because it was not distinct enough for any of the ancient Mediterranean inhabitants to identify it.

(source: read all of it and judge for yourself)

To add to this, the movie tries to suggest that the Crux is visible in April, around the time of Easter.  This is only true, however, for anything at or less than the 25th parallel north.  None of the relevant cultures of the ANE would have been able to witness this (Egypt, Palestine, Italy, Asia Minor, etc…).  Only those locations in the far, far southern hemisphere see the Crux year-round.    But facts mean nothing to the Zeitgeist movement and its most ardent followers (of whom this author has had many encounters and none of them have been remotely interesting or cordial–they don’t take well to dissonant perspectives).  The same can be said for those who believe in ancient aliens.

I’m glad to see that the creators of South Park laid out all the glaring problems of the series Ancient Aliens in an entertaining way.  For those who want to see more about what I and others have to say about this series, check out this link after you watch the clip below.

South Park: Ancient Aliens Thanksgiving

Evolution: The Threat to Christianity

I can understand this journalist’s perspective.  I thought this was a very astute observation:

So-called “reality TV” has done the world a grave disservice. I don’t just mean because the vast majority of such programs are mind-numbingly tedious, but because they have given people the idea that reality is something that can be decided by popular vote.

And again:

Evolution poses a further threat to Christianity, though, a threat that goes to the very heart of Christian teaching. Evolution means that the creation accounts in the first two chapters of Genesis are wrong. That’s not how humans came into being, nor the cattle, nor the creeping things, nor the beasts of the earth, nor the fowl of the air. Evolution could not have produced a single mother and father of all future humans, so there was no Adam and no Eve. No Adam and Eve: no fall. No fall: no need for redemption. No need for redemption: no need for a redeemer. No need for a redeemer: no need for the crucifixion or the resurrection, and no need to believe in that redeemer in order to gain eternal life. And not the slightest reason to believe in eternal life in the first place.

via Evolution threatens Christianity – On Faith – The Washington Post.

I think overall her article was snarky; there are more cordial ways of getting your point across.  Still, the article is interesting and should be read.  You are welcome to disagree, but she is correct that evolution is indeed a fact.  It’s a shame that so many people have been duped by creationists and certain evangelical apologists into believing otherwise.  But belief alone does not make it so.  Evidence is the key.  And evidence is what we have.  Tons of it, in point of fact.  To say otherwise is to show ignorance.  And as the journalist remarks:

Remember that ‘ignorance’ is not an insult, but merely a term for ‘lack of knowledge’. Many of the people who protest so vociferously against the teaching of evolution do not understand how overwhelmingly strong the evidence for it is; and many of those who proclaim “But it’s only a theory” do not understand that the scientific and everyday usages of the word ‘theory’ are very different.

Everyone is welcome to their own opinion, but don’t assume that your opinion will dislodge fact.  Believe what you want, though, because that is also a choice you make, and you are welcome to believe or accept whatever you want.  Just don’t pretend to be able to influence our education system to fit your ignorant opinions.  There is a definite correlation between the 62% of people in this country who do not accept Evolution as it is and the failures of science education in our country.  I don’t allow people who believe in elves to demand changes to our commerce laws to account for the needs of elves; don’t think for a second I’m going to allow your belief in a fictional (but theologically rich) creation story to mess with the education system.

Quake in Virginia Rocks East Coast

Crazy…we felt it in PA too…

A 5.9 magnitude earthquake centered northwest of Richmond, Va., shook much of Washington, D.C., and was felt as far north as Rhode Island and New York City.

The quake sent hundreds of people spilling into the street a block from the White House, with other buildings evacuated in North Carolina and tremors felt as far away as New York City.

The U.S. Geological Survey said the earthquake was 3.7 miles deep. Shaking was felt at the White House and all over the East Coast, as far south as Chapel Hill, N.C. Parts of the Pentagon, White House and Capitol were evacuated. The quake was in Mineral, Va., in Louisa County.

via Quake Rocks Washington Area, Felt on East Coast – ABC News.


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