I usually lie back and enjoy Roy Edoroso’s Rod Dreher takedowns. There are too many massive fails out there to write everytime something stupid this way comes. Besides, Roy practically owns Mr. Crunchy at this point; it is as if the Crunchster’s only reason for being is not, as he imagines, to serve as an incarnate vessel for divine sparkles, but to offer an inexhaustible spring of risible material for Edoroso decant as needed.
But, led by the Hon. Mr. Edoroso himself to the latest of Mr. Dreher’s bizarre complaints — that Bill Maher is not scientific enough to receive atheist of the year honors (sic!) — I came across this howler, left for lesser jaws to masticate. Dreher quotes one Mark Shea approvingly, passing on this nugget of insight:
Nobody will ever die from thinking God created the universe or having some doubts about the proposition that hydrogen is a substance which, if you leave it alone for 13.5 billion years, will turn into Angelina Jolie.
Shea, I find, is a verbose (sure you want to pick up that stone, sinner? — ed.) and — how to put this? — surpassingly simple thinker, at least when it comes to anything that might actually threaten that part of his faith that depends on traditional readings of Genesis 1 and 2.
If you click through the link you’ll find an almost completely unembellished argument from design, presented (with the necessary leaven of scripture) without any apparent awareness of the fate of all such arguments to date. (Please note that that link takes you to a representative gutting by a committed believer of one of the recent design arguments.)
But never mind that. Just stop for a moment and look at the above. How many errors packed into a single sentence, just 20 words?
While I suppose I must give Shea props for confining his proposition to the relatively safe ground of disputes about cosmogenesis, it is certainly true that believers who question the precise form in which God created the universe have died at the hands of those who differed from such views. (And just to make my point clear: I’m not trying to restart the tedious argument over who killed more, religious zealots or anyone else. Rather, I’m simply pointing out that the claim that belief does not have consequences, include the deaths of those who differ in belief, is nonsense.
“hydrogen…if you leave it alone for 13.5 billion years…” (actually 13.7 billion in the most recent results — but that’s not the kind of error I’ mean). This is the real howler.
The last forty five years of cosmological research have shown that whatever else is going on, you take the primordial mix of about 80 percent hydrogen, almost all the rest helium, with a scattering of lithium…and the universe does everything but leave it alone. It does so in most of the interesting ways under the influence of gravity, or local variations in the shape of spacetime, if you want to go all Albert on me. See this handy Wikipedia article for the timeline and links to deeper inquiry as your interests dictate.
Once you get to star formation within those handy collections of matter called galaxies,* you can see how the universe, by not leaving hydrogen alone, makes all kinds of outcomes possible, including but not limited to the conditions that permit the formation of earth-like planets.
That process starts once the temperature at the center of a nascent star reaches ten million degrees kelvin, at which point hydrogen in the star begins to fuse — the nuclear burning that produces the heat and light of a star. Next comes several really big steps I’m leaving out here to produce the heavy elements… but for a fun tour with a bit more detail, may I immodestly suggest you check out chapters five and six in this NOVA film, wherein you will see how stellar fusion leads to bouillabaisse.
“…into Angelina Jolie.” This, of course, is another hit of the argument from design masquerading as a pitiful simulation of pop-culture hiptitude. Yes it may be difficult to imagine that the glory of a Hollywood beauty could simply happen by chance, (and perhaps it might be fair to say that in many cases it clearly does not, but one must sadly note that the designers involved are all too human).
But the notion that you can’t get to something as complicated and aesthetically appealing as Ms. Jolie, or a beautiful mountain landscape, a kitten…or whatever, is simply the old teleological mistake: the assumption that because we see a particular outcome to a process then that the process must have been directed to that one end.
That’s a mistake in formal logic; and it is belied by any number of empirical observations. My favorite, given the significance of eyes to the history of the those who would reject Darwin for design, lies with discovery of (a) the evolutionary pathways leading to the mammallian eye and (b) the finding that eyes evolved several times in different lineages, processes that exploited different biochemical and structural resources. See this link for an overview and further links to lots of resources.
Finally, back again to the beginning, but with a twist: ”Nobody will ever die..about the proposition…” that the universe has evolved and that human reason can penetrate the events that drove that process. Well, actually, people die all the time because of doubt and distrust of science produced by exactly this kind of smug and willed — really intended — ignorance.
Among the more robust predictions of global warming science is that any “average” temperature increase will actually manifest itself in part through an increase in the amount of severe weather we will experience.
It follows, therefore, that unchecked global warming will lead to excess deaths in the future…a prospect made more likely by sustained denialism by those whose iron rice bowl stays whole only so long as they know not that which it is impolitic, or simply ideologically unacceptable, to have known.
And so on. The larger point is simple: science is not simply a bucket of facts, out of which it is possible to choose the bits you like – antibiotics! genetically engineered crops! my iPhone! Rather, it is a body of knowledge, a (many) theoretical frameworks, a method for knowing. Its results are always in some degree provisional,** but its approach is not.
To say that you can’t both deny cosomological evolution and accept biochemistry is not a claim of dogma; rather it reflects the hard fact of experience that when you choose to pursue only those scientific ideas that give you comfort, you lose. Your ability to find out crucial knowledge of the material world suffers in significant ways.
One last aside: I do not line up with those in the “new atheist” camp who find any engagement with religion essentially simple minded. But this stuff is — and it’s dangerous. Seriously: pace Mr. Shea, people do die from ignorance and it’s Twainian companion, certain knowledge of things that ain’t so.
In that context, I believe that the duty to rip apart this kind of nonsense lies very much in the thinking-religious camp. As a general rule, if you don’t want to be characterized by the worst arguments made in your name, be the first and best debunkers.
*Galaxies are really the object of interest here. As the film linked above portrays, they act as kind of cook pots — vessels in which the heavy elements produced by one generation of stars are available to get swept up in the next generation, until they accumulate to the point that interesting chemistry and ultimately, at least once, biochemistry, can take place.
**though mostly much less so than anti-science skeptics would have it.
Images: Mihály Zichy, “Falling Stars,” 1879