The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Posts Tagged ‘miracle’

The Ultimate Easter Quiz

Posted by mattusmaximus on March 27, 2016

Easter is upon us, and while I do not celebrate the holiday (seeing as how I’m not Christian) I think it is worth noting it due to its out-sized presence in U.S. society and around the world. Specifically, in the spirit of educating about the various mythologies and misconceptions surrounding Easter, I would like to share with you the Ultimate Easter Quiz from my friend Phil Ferguson’s Skeptic Money blog (at the appropriate time, feel free to also check out his post about the related Ultimate Christmas Quiz).

For the full details, as well as the answers to the questions, you’ll have to click here. But before you do, try your hand at the questions below, then check your answers and see how well you did. Then share the Quiz with others to test their knowledge!:)

[Addendum: for those interested, you might like my related, earlier post that asks What is the Physical Evidence for the Existence of Jesus?]

The Ultimate Easter Quiz

By David Fitzgerald

1. When did Jesus get crucified?

a. At the 3rd Hour (9am), on Friday, the morning of Passover.
b. Shortly after the 6th Hour (noon), on Friday, the day before Passover.
c. He didn’t really get crucified, his identical twin Thomas Didymus did.
d. He didn’t really get crucified, he only appeared to be crucified.
e. We don’t know for sure, since the gospels disagree irreconcilably.

2. What supernatural events occurred at his death?

a. An earthquake hits Jerusalem (actually, two); strong enough to break stones.
b. Supernatural darkness covers all the land.
c. The sacred temple curtain spontaneously rips in half.
d. A mass resurrection of all the Jewish holy men, who crawl out of their graves and appear to many in Jerusalem.
e. All of the above, depending on which Gospel you read.

3. What historical evidence do we have for those supernatural events?

a. Every major ancient writer of the time worldwide mentioned them.
b. Many important writers in Judea discuss them.
c. Several writers in Jerusalem mention them.
d. No one mentions them, but we do have archeological evidence for them.
e. There is not a single lick of evidence for any of them, written or otherwise.

4. How many women went to the tomb?

a. Three: Mary Magdalene, James’ mother and Salome.
b. Two: Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary.”
c. Lots:  Mary Magdalene, Joanna, James’ mother Mary and other women.
d. Just one: Mary Magdalene.
e. No way to know, since none of the Gospels agree.

5. What did they find there?

a. A young man, sitting inside the tomb on the right.
b. Two men, standing inside.
c. Two angels sitting on each end of the bed.
d. An armed guard of Roman soldiers standing watch, when suddenly a great earthquake occurs, and an angel descends from heaven, his face blazing like lightning and his clothing white as snow; the Roman guards are utterly terrified and all faint dead away; the angel rolls away the stone and sits on it.
e. No way to know, since none of the Gospels agree.

6. What happened after the visit to the tomb?

a. The women ran away in terror and never told anyone what they saw.
b. Jesus appears, is initially mistaken for the gardener, and then is tenderly reunited with Mary.
c. The women tell the disciples, who don’t believe them.
d. Peter runs and beats everyone to the tomb; or possibly gets beaten by one of the other disciples.
e. No way to know, since none of the Gospels agree.

7. Where/when did the risen Jesus first appear to the disciples?

a. On a mountain in the Galilee (60-100 miles from Jerusalem), just as the angel told them he would.
b. We don’t know; we aren’t told anything after the women run from the tomb.
c. He appears to two followers (not disciples) on the road to Emmaus (seven miles from Jerusalem)
d. He materializes in a locked room in Jerusalem as the disciples are at dinner.
e. No way to know, since none of the Gospels agree.

8. When/Where did Jesus ascend back to heaven?

a.  Jesus returns to heaven on the same day he arose, right after dinner, from a room in Jerusalem.
b. We don’t know exactly, but it’s at least 8 days after the resurrection, when the despondent apostles have gone back to being fishermen on the sea of Tiberias.
c. After his resurrection, Jesus spends at least 40 days of teaching his disciples in Jerusalem before ascending to heaven from the Mt. of Olives.
d.  Jesus didn’t ascend into heaven; he met his disciples in the mountains of Galilee and told them he would be with them always.
e. We don’t really know; Luke is the only gospel writer who actually mentions the ascension.

9. Who wrote these gospels, anyway?

a. Matthew, Mark, Luke, John – I mean, come on, it says so right there.
b. Actually, none of the gospels even claim to be written by eyewitnesses – all were originally anonymous and written at least a generation later.
c. Well, it’s more like the end of first century for Mark and sometime in the early to mid 2nd century for the others, if you must know.
d. Hold on – Not only that, but Matthew and Luke just reworked Mark gospel, adding their own material and tweaking Mark’s text to better fit what they thought it should say.
e. Get this – if all that weren’t enough, all the Gospels have been edited and added to by later editors, and for the first 200 – 300 years, we have no way to determine how faithfully the originals were preserved.

10. Where does the word “Easter” come from?

a. From the Aramaic word for Passover.
b. It originally was “Eastern Holiday” – referring to the Passover celebrated by Jews in the eastern part of the Roman empire.
c. From est ova, Latin for “Where are the eggs?”
d. From an ancient Celtic pun that means both “Bunnies” and “Chocolate.”
e. from Eastre/Eostre, the pagan Goddess of Spring.

Click here to see the correct answers (scroll down the page)!

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Santa, Skepticism, and the Holiday Season

Posted by mattusmaximus on December 19, 2015

A recent article posted by skeptical writer Greta Christina titled No, Virginia, There Is No Santa Claus over at Freethought Blogs caught my eye. In it, she makes a compelling argument for why it is that children should be skeptical of some adults’ attempts to hoodwink them…

… You should be extremely suspicious of anyone who tells you that you’re a bad person for not believing things you have no good reason to think are true. You should be extremely suspicious of anyone who tells you that, in order to experience love and generosity and devotion, you have to believe in Santa Claus, or any other mythical being there’s no good evidence for. You should be extremely suspicious of anyone who tells you that “childlike faith” — i.e., believing things you have no good reason to think are true — is somehow in the same category as poetry and romance. You should be extremely suspicious of anyone who tells you that the world would be dreary without Santa Claus: that without Santa Claus, the light of childhood would be extinguished, we would have no enjoyment except in sense and sight, and existence would be intolerable. That is one seriously messed-up idea.

Adults know that there is no Santa Claus. If they tell you otherwise, they are lying to you. That’s okay: some parents tell their children that Santa Claus is real as a sort of game, and there’s no evidence that this does any real harm. But if anyone keeps lying to you — about Santa Claus, or anything else — when you ask them a direct question and explicitly ask them to tell you the truth? That’s a problem. And if anyone tries to make you feel ashamed, or inferior, or like your life will be dreary and intolerable, simply because you don’t believe in this lie they’re telling you… you should be extremely suspicious. They are trying to manipulate you. It is not okay.

I agree wholeheartedly with Greta’s thoughts on this matter, and I recommend that you read her entire post on the topic. That said, I’d also like to take this opportunity to share (or re-share) some of my previous work on the entire matter of skepticism, education, Santa Claus, and the Holiday Season in general.

1. If Santa ever existed, he didn’t live for long

This is perhaps what I’m most famous (or infamous) for on this topic: I use physics to kill Santa Claus; to be more accurate, I use physics to kill the idea of Santa Claus (because it’s impossible to kill something that doesn’t exist in the first place). Originally, I made a post years ago outlining how, assuming the jolly old elf existed in the first place, Santa would be simultaneously fried to a crisp and squashed into jelly in his attempts to deliver presents on Christmas Eve.

Then, last year, I decided to up my game a bit. I got commissioned to write an article for a UK Education periodical on the topic, and I went so far as to perform the explicit calculations showing that not only would Santa have to absorb the equivalent  energy of 20 Tsar-Bomba nuclear weapons every second due to air drag, but he’d also experience roughly 192 million g’s worth of acceleration in the process – more than enough to make short work of him!

Now, I’d like to share with you the specific PowerPoint I use to annihilate the Santa Claus myth. Feel free to download and use it as you will :)

Physics of Santa 2.0

Physics of Santa

2. The Santa Myth isn’t all bad and can serve a skeptical purpose

I’ve argued before that I think the myth of Santa Claus can actually be a very useful tool to promote skepticism and critical thinking in young children. Please note that my argument here is not in any way, shape, or form in opposition to Greta Christina’s well reasoned post above; I simply think that it is good for children to work out for themselves that Santa isn’t real, and once they’ve done that they should give the stink-eye to anyone who tries to give them grief or make them feel bad for not believing in the fairy tale. Even better, once kids figure it out, they should go forth and argue with their peers about the existence of Santa; what could be better than skeptical children promoting critical thinking to other kids?

3. It isn’t all about Santa

While it is perhaps true that Santa Claus is the most popular aspect of the Holiday Season, it certainly isn’t the only myth of the Holiday Season. Once children become skeptical of the existence of Santa Claus, then why not encourage them to ask questions and become more critical of other aspects of the season? For example, they can take the following myths and misconceptions quiz on the issue, examining everything from the more pagan aspects of Christmas to blatant falsehoods regarding the Gospels in the Bible. After all, once one starts to question one myth, then why not another?…

santa-dear-children

 

Posted in education, humor, physics denial/woo, religion | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Pope Tries to Have It Both Ways on Science

Posted by mattusmaximus on June 24, 2015

Like many, I was pleasantly surprised when Pope Francis recently made public comments about climate change, wherein he stated that a) it was real, and b) it is largely due to human activity. This is good news because, rightly or wrongly, the Pope is looked up to by billions of people around the world, and when someone of his stature speaks, people listen; and it seems his words are having a positive effect. It is also interesting that so many global warming deniers are beside themselves, even going so far as to label the Pope’s stance as off base and that he should (get this) leave “science to the scientists” (pardon me while I laugh at the irony of that comment). Of course, what do you expect from people who continually confuse weather with climate?

Now, while I’m happy to see these developments, I also urge caution. It’s not like Pope Francis is suddenly a big booster for science. Like too many high-profile public figures, he is a science-booster when it works for him and a science-denier when it works against him. Case in point: I was also a tad disappointed when the Pope visited Turin, Italy a few days ago, and he took some time to pray before the much-revered Shroud of Turin.

italy_turin_pope_francis_visit_tur31_50953173

(Image source)

So why does this matter? It matters because, to put it bluntly, it has been shown rather conclusively that the Shroud of Turin, which many claim is the burial shroud of Jesus Christ, is fake. For instance, there is the historical evidence which dates it to a time (around the year 1300 C.E. – roughly 13 centuries after Christ’s supposed burial) when supposed “holy relics” abounded in Europe; then there is the radio-carbon dating which dates it conclusively to the same time frame; then there is the evidence that, despite claims by the Vatican to the contrary, that it is actually rather easy to fake the phenomenon of the Shroud. All of this evidence pointing to the fakery that is the revered Shroud is nicely summed up in this entry at the Skeptic’s Dictionary.

Which leads to an obvious question: If Pope Francis is such a science-booster, why is he avoiding the entire question of the Shroud’s authenticity? Why are his statements regarding the Shroud little more than veiled references to Jesus and the Christian faith? Could it be because he wants to have it both ways, like Sen. Rick Santorum, and leave “science to the scientists”, except when he doesn’t like the answers science reveals?

Officially, the Vatican hasn’t taken a stance on the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin, but apparently that won’t stop the Pope from giving every indication that he believes it is real and thus influencing millions of Shroud-believers. Taking this stance is essentially to make one big argument from ignorance – that’s what this entire endeavor basically boils down to: we don’t know whether or not the Shroud is real, so therefore it really was the burial cloth of Jesus Christ!

So because you don’t know, you know???

Seriously? That’s the argument? Using such sloppy logic I could just as easily argue that the Shroud was created by invisible leprechauns, but somehow I don’t think the Catholic Church would go with that explanation. And that’s the silly thing about arguments from ignorance: once you use such thinking as an acceptable method of argumentation, just about any kind of crazy idea (without any evidence to support it whatsoever) becomes fair game.

Ah well, at least the Pope got it right on climate change.

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Vatican Pulls a Boner with St. Peter’s Alleged Remains

Posted by mattusmaximus on November 29, 2013

In light of the upcoming Holiday Season, I wanted to do a quick post regarding an interesting bit of news out of the Vatican recently; apparently, the Vatican is putting the supposed bones of St. Peter on public display for the very first time.  However, these may not be the bones true-believers are looking for…

Saint Peters Bones - maybe

It would be a real boner if the remains turned out to not be those of Saint Peter, wouldn’t it?(image source)

St. Peter’s Bones: Vatican ‘Verifies’ Remains Despite Archaeological Skepticism

As far as St. Peter’s bones go, many Catholic’s will no doubt be planning a pilgrimage to the Holy See, to view the bones purported to belong to St. Peter. The remains were revealed Sunday at St. Peter’s square, and the revelation was performed at St. Peter’s Square at the conclusion of the Catholic church’s “Year of Faith.”

This also happens to the first time St. Peter’s bones have ever been put on display since being discovered in 1939. But there is no DNA sample with which to make a comparison and no way of proving who the skeletal remains actually belong to. But the Vatican is declaring their “verification” regardless.

Pilgrims 8.5 million strong have journeyed to see the Vatican’s relics collection over the last year, but many are questioning whether or not the bones really belong to St. Peter. Peter was believed to have been martyred in Rome in 64 C.E. by being crucified upside down, and then buried in the city. Pope Paul VI said of St. Peter’s bones:

“[They had been identified] in a manner which we believe convincing.”

… Despite the lack of verification, and the fact that archeologists have disputed that they actually found St. Peter’s bones, the Vatican has found the identification “convincing” and has officially declared the bones to belong to St. Peter.

Pardon me if I’m just a bit skeptical of these claims, especially since there has been no independent verification that the remains are indeed those of St. Peter.  Sadly, the history of the Catholic Church is full of examples of pious frauds (such as the much-lauded Shroud of Turin) passed off on the faithful as the real thing when, at best, their authenticity is highly dubious.

Of course, in a time when the Church is struggling to keep asses in pews and money coming into the coffers, I suppose they’ll grab onto anything – no matter how questionable or tenuous – that they can.

 

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Skeptical Teacher Interviewed on The Pink Atheist

Posted by mattusmaximus on October 17, 2013

This past Sunday evening, I was interviewed on The Pink Atheist podcast/radio show.  The topics of discussion were the vaccine survey research I was involved with and the importance of promoting a good pro-vaccine message, as well as talking about some of the physics behind various crazy demonstrations I perform both in and out of the classroom.

Click the link below for the full audio of my interview, which starts at the 20:25 mark.  Enjoy!:)

The Pink Atheist

pink atheist

Posted in skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

God on a Goldfish Cracker?

Posted by mattusmaximus on April 8, 2013

Every now and then, just when you think things cannot get too silly, they do.  Case in point: the fact that the news media is actually giving some attention to a woman’s claim that her goldfish cracket is a “sign from God”…

Florida woman finds ‘sign from God’ on Goldfish cracker

GoldfishGod

It’s a fishy story, but the woman telling it believes it’s pure gold. The Florida resident says the markings she found on a Goldfish cracker are a direct message affirming her Christian faith.

“I believe that it’s a sign, a sign from God,” Patti Burke told Florida Today. “He is still in our life every day, and he wants to show that to his people.”

It’s not quite manna, but in Burke’s eyes it’s a manifestation of her faith.

The cracker in question has two markings, or imperfections, on its surface. Burke says the first marking is of a cross with a circle around it. The second marking, near the head of the fish, represents a golden crown.

“When I picked this one up, I knew he was special,” she said. “Something I’ve never seen before out of all the Goldfish I’ve eaten.”

Burke admittedly has been working from a large sample size, consuming between two and three pounds of the crackers per week. She says she eats the small crackers individually, examining each one for the optimal amount of savory coating. … [emphasis added]

Umm… yeah.  Pardon me, but… IT’S A CRACKER!!! Sorry, I just had to get that out of my system.  Come on folks, is it really any surprise that the person making this “miraculous discovery” (which has all the markings of a modern-day “religious relic” such as the infamous Virgin Mary Grill Cheese Sandwich) is a devout Christian?  That is the classic marker of pareidolia – our evolution-wired brains are developed for pattern recognition, and one of the most recognized patterns for a Christian is the cross. Throw into the mix a bit of religious fervor (i.e. in this case, devout Christianity) and viola! you have a “miracle” appearance of the cross on a cracker.

Here’s another interesting bit of pareidolia to get you thinking.  Years ago a man cut into a melon, and he saw this…

So what, if anything, do you see?  If you’re like me, you see some wavy lines which are essentially meaningless.  But if you are a devout Muslim who can read Arabic, you will likely see “Allah” (God) written out in Arabic.  And, before you roll your eyes, there are people who treat this as seriously as our lady does her cross-marked cracker.  So, what this shows you is that the interpretation of these “miracles” is strongly context and culturally specific.

In conclusion, what this all really teaches us about these kinds of “miraculous events” is this: it’s all in your head, folks, and people who believe strongly enough can find amazing ways to validate those beliefs – even if to the rest of us it’s utter gibberish.

It also seems to teach us something about God’s powers, namely that as time goes on the kind of “miracles” that God apparently performs become increasingly mundane, as this graph displays :)

Gods Power vs Time

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Myths and Misconceptions About Christmas

Posted by mattusmaximus on December 15, 2012

Once again the season is upon us, when much of the world’s population celebrates Christmas and all the holiday trappings thereof.  I’ve made numerous posts on the subject before, including The Physics of Santa Claus, how the idea of Santa Claus can be used as a tool to teach critical thinking to kids (including a podcast interview I did on the subject), and the tongue-in-cheek celebration of Newtonmass :)

And, of course, along with all of that, there is not to be missed the chance to spread some skepticism and critical thinking regarding Christmas in general.  To help with that, my skeptical colleague Phil over at Skeptic Money has once again posted the Ultimate Christmas Quiz that you can use to test your (and that of your friends and family) knowledge of the holiday.  You might be surprised to learn about all of the myths and/or misconceptions which exist in popular culture about Christmas…

Ultimate Christmas Quiz

Ultimate Christmas Quiz

Note:  if you enjoy this quiz, check out The Ultimate Easter Quiz.

There are 12 questions below, how many will you get right?  Can you do better than your friends?  Your christian friends?

Pull out a piece of paper and mark your answers.

FYI… The answers are at the bottom (no cheating….) count your correct answers and see how you score.

The Ultimate Christmas Quiz – By David Fitzgerald

1. What year was Jesus born?

a. We don’t know for sure, since the gospels disagree irreconcilably.

b. We don’t know for sure, but the gospels agree it was during the reign of Herod the Great (died around 4 B.C.).

c. We don’t know for sure, but the gospels agree it was when Quirinius was governor of Syria (6 A.D.).

d. We don’t know for sure, but the gospels agree it was the year the moon was in the seventh house and Jupiter aligned with Mars.

e. D’uh! The year zero, of course.

2. According to the Gospels, what day was Jesus born?

a. Dec 25th.

b. Dec 24th.

c. No date is given in any gospel.

d. The day of the Winter Solstice.

e. The third night of Hanukkah.

3. What pagan holiday did later Christians “borrow” to celebrate Jesus’ birthday?

a. The Greek Brumalia festival

b. The Roman feast of Saturnalia

c. Dies Natalis Solis Invicti (“the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun”)

d. All of the above

e. None of the above

4. So what day was Jesus really born? 

a. Jan 6

b. Feb 2 (Groundhog Day)

c. March 25

d. We can’t be certain.

e. Sometime during Sukkoth, the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles

5. According to Mark (the oldest gospel) where was Jesus born?

a. He doesn’t say.

b. By the chimney, with care.

c. In his parent’s house in Nazareth.

d. A manger in Bethlehem.

e. A cave in Bethlehem.

6. According to Luke, who were the Wise Men?

a. A group of 2 – 12 Zoroastrian astrologers from Persia.

b. Three kings of orient bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh from afar.

c. There were no Wise Men.

d. Cupid, Donder and Blitzen.

e. Melchior of Persia, Caspar (or Gaspar) of India, and Balthazar of Arabia.

7. According to Matthew, who showed up on the night of Jesus’ birth?

a. Shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night

b. An angel and a multitude of the heavenly host

c. The prophet Simeon and the prophetess Anna

d. Ten lords a-leaping

e. No one.

8. What happened after Jesus’ birth?

a. Impossible to say for sure – two of the gospels tell completely contradictory stories, and the other two say nothing.

b.  Good tidings were brought for him and his kin; and then figgy pudding, for they would not go until they get some.

c. Scary stuff: An angel warns Joseph via a dream to flee their home in Bethlehem for Egypt. Herod kills all the baby boys in the region. After Herod’s death, they return to Judea but are afraid of Herod’s son, so they move to Nazareth in Galilee instead (evidently, Matthew forgot that Galilee was ruled by Herod’s other son!).

d. Happy stuff: The shepherds spread the good news to all, baby Jesus is circumcised, and after the obligatory 40 days for ritual purity, brought to the temple in Jerusalem where prophets hail him as the Christ. They return home to Nazareth and go back to Jerusalem every year for Passover until Jesus is twelve.

e. We aren’t told, the gospels immediately cut to his adulthood.

9. Which of these traditional Christmas elements were originally pagan?

a. Christmas Trees

b. Yule Logs

c. The Birth of the Savior

d. Boughs of Holly and Sprigs of Mistletoe

e. All of the above

10. Where does the word “Yuletide” come from?

a. It’s an abbreviation of the Latin ultimus ides, “last holiday of the year.”

b. From Germanic/Old Norse “Jul-time” or “Jól-time” (the midwinter fest).

c. Named after Julius Caesar, who invented Sanctus Clausius, the Roman Santa Claus.

d. Named in honor of Hywll Tydd, ancient Welsh god of reindeer and socks.

e. Nordic priests copied the name from the Christian Christmastide.

11. Who started the War on Christmas?

a. True American Christian Fundamentalists and the Founding Fathers

b. Richard Dawkins

c. Godless atheists, the liberal media, gays and lesbians, activist judges, science teachers, lawyers, the ACLU, democrats and everyone else we hate.

d. The Jews

e. Al Qaida

12. Our familiar modern American “Santa Claus” is based on all these earlier figures, EXCEPT for:

a. The English Father Christmas, Charles Dickens’ characters and the Victorian cartoons of Thomas Nast.

b. The Dutch Santa, Sinterklaas or Goedheiligman

c. A de-horned, sanitized, anagram of Satan.

d. Mighty Norse thunder god Thor’s father, Odin

e. St. Nikolaos, 4th-century Greek bishop and patron saint of children.

Bonus Question! (re-gifted from the Ultimate Easter Quiz)

13. Who wrote these gospels, anyway?

a. Matthew, Mark, Luke, John – I mean, come on, it says so right there.

b. Actually, none of the gospels even claim to be written by eyewitnesses -all were originally anonymous and written at least a generation later.

c. Well, it’s more like the end of first century for Mark and sometime in the early to mid 2nd century for the others, if you must know.

d. Hold on – Not only that, but Matthew and Luke just reworked Mark gospel, adding their own material and tweaking Mark’s text to better fit what they thought it should say.

Incidentally, if you want the answers, then you have to go visit Phil’s website for them.  Cheers!😀

 

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Fun with Pareidolia: Mr. Bill in my Soup!

Posted by mattusmaximus on September 28, 2012

I’ve been meaning to post this for awhile, but I keep forgetting to do so.  During my summer vacation to the Adirondacks in New York, my wife and I took a break from hiking to get some dinner.  As we were getting ready to chow down, lo and behold, I observed the following “miraculous” appearance in my wife’s soup!…

Laugh if you will, unbeliever, but you should tremble in awe at the miraculous appearance of…

Mr. Bill!  Ohhhh Noooooo!!!😦

Of course it isn’t Mr. Bill in my soup, folks.  It’s just another classic case of pareidolia, the same phenomenon by which people think they see dogs or cars in the clouds, the so-called Face on Mars, the Virgin Mary on a piece of toast, or visions of Jesus in a window.  Essentially, our brains work as pattern-recognition machines, and one of the most familiar patterns which we are evolutionarily programmed to recognize is other human faces.  So we tend to see human (or human-like) faces in bits of random data even when there really is no face there to begin with!

I really like how skeptical magicians Penn & Teller put it during their Bullshit! episode on supposed “miracles”, so I’ll let them have the last word:)

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“Miracle Baby” and God’s Powers

Posted by mattusmaximus on April 14, 2012

So over the last few days there has been a lot of hubbub on the Internet about a supposed “miracle baby” in Argentina who was thought to be stillborn and left for dead in a morgue.  The thing is that the kid wasn’t actually dead, and she somehow survived there for over 12 hours before being discovered.  And people are calling her a “miracle baby” that somehow proves the existence and goodness of God, blah blah blah…

Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s great the kid survived (though recent reports show that she may be dying).  But it just bugs the crap out of me when people point to events like this as some kind of “proof” of God’s omnipotence and goodness.  The problem with this kind of thinking is that it blatantly ignores the big and classical problem of evil and suffering in the world.  Why would a “good” God allow such a thing to happen to this little baby in the first place?

Or, to put a little more punch to my point and as a way of balancing out this topic with a harsh dose of reality, allow me to share the following picture which is worth more than a thousand words…

Image source

And another thing this whole story got me thinking about: it seems to me that the standards people have for so-called “miracles” have been dropping.  I’ve heard people declare that “it was a miracle their headache went away”; are you kidding me?  I’m an atheist and all I have to do to get over a headache is… wait.  Maybe your claim to a “miracle” might be a bit more impressive if you had your arm hacked off in an industrial accident and it magically regrew after you prayed.  To put this whole criticism of miracles into perspective, allow me to share this humorous graphic:)

Thanks to Irreligion.org

Posted in philosophy, religion | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

Can Science Test the Validity of the Supernatural?

Posted by mattusmaximus on February 15, 2012

I wrote another article for the JREF Swift Blog recently, and this one focused on science, philosophy, and religion.  It gets to a pretty fundamental question regarding those three endeavors, and I wanted to share it with you here.  Enjoy!

Can Science Test the Validity of the Supernatural?

Those of us who consider ourselves skeptics and supporters of science, and most especially those of us who are involved at some level in defending good science from the efforts of creationists to water down (or even eliminate) the teaching of evolution, will be familiar with this question. I think the answer is not simple and is much thornier, both philosophically and practically speaking, than many people (including many skeptics) would like to admit.

Let me first take a few minutes to outline some basics of the philosophy of science that are relevant to this discussion. This has to do with the nature of naturalism in science; more specifically, we need to make a very clear distinction between methodological naturalism and philosophical naturalism.

Methodological naturalism is the practice of naturalism in science; in other words, as it is most commonly stated, there are naturalistic answers sought for scientific questions, and the question of potential supernatural answers (“miracles” if you will) is not even considered. It was the application of methodological naturalism in what was in the 19th-century still referred to as natural philosophy, which helped to define and distinguish modern science as it is currently practiced. In the view of many scientists, science as practiced doesn’t necessarily speak to the validity or non-validity of the supernatural precisely because it is constrained to seeking only natural causes for the phenomena we observe in the universe. In the view of pure methodological naturalism, science is agnostic on such matters, and this gives many believers in the supernatural an “out” for accepting science while retaining their beliefs.

By contrast, philosophical naturalism is usually defined as a philosophical position that there is no such thing as the so-called “supernatural” because the natural world is all that exists. This view assumes, a priori, that there is no separate realm of existence, which is distinguished from the natural world. Thus, in this view, anything, which is claimed to exist within the “supernatural” realm, either doesn’t exist at all or is being confused for some other kind of natural phenomenon which isn’t necessarily well understood by the claimant. It should come as no surprise that in the world of the philosophical naturalist there is no such thing as a miracle and there are no gods per se. There is no comfort for the supernaturalists in the worldview of philosophical naturalism.

Having laid that foundation, let us now get back to the specific case of the entire evolution-creationism discussion, where we can see this distinction between the methodological and philosophical view of naturalism on display. There are many pro-science groups, such as the National Center for Science Education, which take the view usually credited to the late Stephen J. Gould called non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA) when discussing the thorny issues of science, religion, their intersection, and their conflicts. Basically NOMA takes a kind of modified position of methodological naturalism and is described by Gould as follows: “the magisterium of science covers the empirical realm: what the Universe is made of (fact) and why does it work in this way (theory). The magisterium of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry (consider, for example, the magisterium of art and the meaning of beauty).” [1]

Even the National Academy of Sciences in the United States takes a viewpoint based upon NOMA, wherein, in regards to the evolution-creationism issue, they state: “Scientists, like many others, are touched with awe at the order and complexity of nature. Indeed, many scientists are deeply religious. But science and religion occupy two separate realms of human experience. Demanding that they be combined detracts from the glory of each.” [2]

Note that in the cases of taking the NOMA stance, there is nothing said one way or the other regarding the existence or non-existence of gods, miracles, or any kind of supernatural phenomena. However, there are many for whom the position of NOMA is rather unappealing, most notably because it seems to have the effect of stacking the deck in favor of what are considered unfounded beliefs and claims. For example, while the Catholic Church can tell its followers that the science for evolution is ironclad and therefore acceptable, that same religious institution routinely turns its back on science and completely ignores it regarding questions related to the authenticity of supposed religious relics such as the Shroud of Turin (which is, in case you didn’t know, a fake). This is merely one example where the believers and purveyors of the supernatural will try to have their cake and eat it too, the critics of NOMA would say, as they with one hand embrace science while with the other hand reject it. …

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