Total Drek

Or, the thoughts of several frustrated intellectuals on Sociology, Gaming, Science, Politics, Science Fiction, Religion, and whatever the hell else strikes their fancy. There is absolutely no reason why you should read this blog. None. Seriously. Go hit your back button. It's up in the upper left-hand corner of your browser... it says "Back." Don't say we didn't warn you.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Infinitely Improbable Descent

I have a certain admiration for those bloggers who have the steel intestines needed to work beats like the wingnut watch. I enjoy finely honed ridicule as much as the next guy, but that entire mode of blogging exists as a reminder that rational discourse will only take you so far in this world.

But I'm not writing here (vs. the usual place) to offer meta-blogging banalities as such. Rather, it's because Drek has seen fit to blogroll "Wild Bill" Dembski's Web home, which (or so PZ Myers has told me) is hosting a discussion of surpassing pointlessness, even by the standard of reality-TV liveblogging. One of Dembski's contributors is promoting an explanation of the (doctrinal) virgin birth of (historical) Jesus as a purely natural phenomenon. Allen MacNeill, a Cornell biology instructor, valiantly tries to correct some basic errors in the argument in the comments thread, though trying to follow the thread as it wandered off-topic and back on again, I have to wonder if engagement led to a degree of Stockholm syndrome.

In the Catholicism in which I was raised, the virgin birth of Jesus is one of those examples of God doing the omnipotent and ineffable thing. (*) Searching for a purely naturalistic explanation not only doesn't contribute to the theological argument, it's a fool's errand that's directly counter to it.

More interesting in its way than the hackish biological misunderstandings deployed in service of non-miraculous parthenogenesis of Historical Jesus is one of the Catholic catechism's arguments. The key passage is:
Faith in the virginal conception of Jesus met with the lively opposition, mockery or incomprehension of non-believers, Jews and pagans alike; so it could hardly have been motivated by pagan mythology or by some adaptation to the ideas of the age.
Shorter Catholic Church: Why would we put ourselves through all that trouble if it weren't true? But before atheists everywhere rejoice at this affirmation, note that it applies a fortiori to John Travolta and his involvement with the adaptation of Battlefield Earth.

Now, it's not that some myths might not have natural explanations. An interesting NYT science section piece from a couple weeks ago (now behind the Times Select paywall) described research suggesting the enormous tsunami asociated with a large asteroid or comet impact in the Indian Ocean in historical time — about 4,800 years ago — as an explanation for enormous "chevrons" on Madagascar comprised of material from the ocean floor fused with metals typical of a certain type of meteor. An appropriately young (q.q.v.) 18-mile-wide crater, recently discovered in the deep ocean, awaits confirmation of its origins. (**)

One researcher discussed in the article went so far as to propose an exact date of the impact based on correlating features of flood myths with events with known dates (e.g., solar eclipses), which seems to be an enormous stretch. But there are a lot of ancient flood myths out there, and as sub-extinction-level natural cataclysms primitive societies might attribute to divine vengeance go, big meteor strikes would have to be considered not so improbable.

Mammalian parthenogenesis, not so much. MacNeill noted that one proponent of a natural virgin birth theory estimated the odds as 1-in-120 billion. This strikes me as high, or perhaps more precisely pulled out of thin air to get a plausibly low expected value (given an approximate number of humans that have ever lived) to fit one "observation." (***) The problem is that parthenogenesis doesn't seem to naturally occur in other mammals, either. (****) So there's a need either to explain why the odds of parthenogenesis are higher in humans or the odds should produce roughly zero virgin births among every mammal that's ever lived.

So, if you're inclined to believe in such things, the miracle theory of the virgin birth is far less improbable than the would-be explanation as a natural phenomenon.

And yes, thanks for asking, the stupidity does burn.

(*) It's also interesting, given the church's fetishization of procreation in marriage (*****), to see the argument twist itself in knots to deny the possibility (if not probability) that Historical Jesus had historical siblings.

(**) A "wha??" moment in the article was this:

So far, astronomers are skeptical but are willing to look at the evidence, said David Morrison, a leading authority on asteroids and comets at the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif. Surveys show that as many as 185 large asteroids or comets hit the Earth in the far distant past, although most of the craters are on land. No one has spent much time looking for craters in the deep ocean, Dr. Morrison said, assuming young ones don't exist and that old ones would be filled with sediment.

Astronomers monitor every small space object with an orbit close to the Earth. ''We know what's out there, when they return, how close they come,'' Dr. Morrison said. Given their observations, ''there is no reason to think we have had major hits in the last 10,000 years,'' he continued, adding, ''But if Dallas is right and they find 10 such events, we'll have a real contradiction on our hands.''

Maybe I'm behind the times, but it's been my understanding that a comprehensive survey of objects with Earth-crossing orbits is one of those low-cost, high-return science projects that's been in need of funding, and that there are fairly big objects that have (1) been recently discovered, because they've come close, and (2) it stands to reason, await discovery. So the astronomers are monitoring what we know about and looking for more, but it's the rocks we don't know about that are the interesting ones here. Yes?

(***) Were I less polite, I'd say that Frank Tipler, the source, derived a sophisticated argument to surround a figure pulled out of his ass.

(****) A mouse born as the result of an experiment meant to examine the roles of sperm and egg in mammalian development, mentioned by someone in the thread, doesn't count. It's not naturally occurring and, as the Wikipedia entry clearly mentions, it has two mommies.

(*****) On display in Madison as the Catholic bishop stuck his nose in the debate over the Wisconsin constitutional ban on same-sex marriage and civil unions. The implication is that Mary and Joseph had the one marriage actually enhanced, in the Catholic view, by not being open to procreation through the marital act.


Blogger Ken Houghton said...

I note that the Hebrew prophecy (see The Original, not that Sequel with those long lists, followed by some minor action, followed by a lot of "personal" letters but with a Really Great Ending) that is used to justify Jesus as Lord translates as "young woman"; no maidenhead implied.

It's not that the Catholic Church made it up; it's that they mistranslated and insist on standing by the error.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006 7:28:00 AM  

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