Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Creation Physics

Creationism (the idea that all species were created by God as described in Genesis) has been relabelled as "Intelligent Design" in the hopes of sneaking it into the classroom as a science. So it's time to look not only at Creation Biology but Creation Physics.

During the Englightenment many writers mocked the physics of the Old Testament and poured scorn on the authors of Genesis for such silly ideas. Since I am an atheist, you might expect me to take the same tack, but you'd be wrong. And before you write, I know that Genesis and the rest of the Pentateuch is attributed to Moses, but in the Pentateuch you will find a description of Moses' death and funeral and a listing of events that took place after he died, so at least some of the Pentateuch was written by people other than Moses.

The authors of Genesis came up with what they thought was a reasonable explanation of how things were:

  • The earth was flat.

  • A hemispherical dome of a solid, non-transparent material, which they called the firmament and which we call the sky, covered the earth.

  • Atop the firmament was God's throne and Heaven.

  • The sun and the moon were navigation beacons which travelled around between us and the firmament (sky). Somehow, at night, the sun was transported to a new position ready to rise again in the east.

  • The sun and the moon gave off light, but were not the source of daylight. Light just was ("let there be light, and there was light") without a specific source.

  • Holes in the firmament allowed water to fall through as rain. At night those holes admitted light from Heaven and showed up as stars.

Most people with a reasonable degree of intelligence and education know just how wrong those ideas are. Some people may even know that when Genesis was written there were those who believe the earth to be spherical (and in 230 BCE Eratosthenes measured the diameter of the earth). So why am I not mocking the authors of Genesis? Because I remember being a child, and how things appeared.

The earth looked flat to me. Sure there were hills and valleys in the distance, but the ground didn't look curved. Sure I knew when my parents drove me somewhere a long way away I'd see new stuff I couldn't see from home, but things in the distance look very small, so maybe I really could see the new stuff all along but it was so small I couldn't make out the details. It was only when my parents took me on holiday to the seaside and I saw a ship disappear over the horizon that I had evidence from my own eyes that supported the idea of a spherical earth.

Look up at the sky on a cloudless (or near cloudless) day. That deep, baby blue with no hint of anything beyond. Doesn't it look hemispherical to you? Damned right it does, because what you can see of it is a portion of a sphere. It's a good deal less than a hemisphere, but your eyes cannot detect that. And it sure as hell looks like it touches the earth at the horizon.

If the sky is solid and not transparent (and it certainly looks that way because you can't see anything beyond it) then the sun and moon have to be closer than the sky. But suppose you thought the sky transparent, like blue glass, and said the reason you couldn't see anything beyond it was because there wasn't anything beyond it (other than God and his throne, but they're invisible to mortal eyes), you still wouldn't think the sun was further away than the sky. You'd know that if the sky were transparent and the sun were further away you'd see the same sort of effects as if you looked at a candle through blue glass.

Light coming from nowhere seems implausible. But go outside. If the sun is visible you'll see a shadow from the sun. But if the sun is obscured by cloud there will be no shadow but there is light. If the sun were the only source of light then when it was obscured by cloud there would be no daylight. If you don't know about Rayleigh scattering in the upper atmosphere then that's pretty damned obvious. So the sun emits light but it is not the source of daylight.

And that's why I'm not mocking the authors of Genesis. They did a pretty good job of describing what they saw and trying to explain it. Others (like Eratosthenes) did a better job, but given the limitations of a nomadic tribe what they came up with was not stupid. Absolutely, totally, utterly wrong, yes, but not stupid. It was an honest attempt to explain the world about them. They do not deserve scorn for an honest attempt to understand the world about them.

But that is why the religious fundamentalists who claim the BabbleBible is the inerrant word of God do deserve scorn and contempt. Because there are only two ways the authors of Genesis could have come up with a theory that was so wrong. The first is that they made it up and God did not tell them all this stuff. The second is that God lied to them to see how gullible they were. Both alternatives prove that the BabbleBible is not the inerrant word of God.

Don't give me that bullshit about God having to feed them with stuff they could cope with. He's fucking God. He can work miracles. He can moon Moses. Yes, God really did moon Moses - the radiance of God's face was too much for Moses' eyes so God showed Moses his nether parts. If you can prove you're fucking God (y'know, by doing miracles) then you can say things like "You won't believe this, but the earth is a sphere and the sky is an illusion."

Some fucker performs miracles (and I do mean miracles as opposed to stage magic) in front of me, I'm going to take his word for stuff even if it doesn't make sense to me. Well, actually, I wouldn't, because I'm a cynical bastard. But I'd at least try to check it out. And whether I could prove it or disprove it, I'd document what this dude said.

So, basically, the BabbleBible was the attempt of nomadic tribesmen to explain the world around them and the events that had happened to them. It is the words of fallible men, not of God. If it were the inerrant word of God then Creation Physics wouldn't be such a load of crap.

While I'm here, I might as well cover Creation Mathematics. The BabbleBible says that π is three. The ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter is not 3.141592625358979... as modern mathematics tells us but 3.

Somebody will no doubt say that God had to limit what he said to what Moses could understand. That the Jews of the time knew about counting numbers (positive integers, e.g., 1, 2, 3...) and rational numbers (fractions such as one-half, three-quarters, ten-thirds) but not negative numbers, irrational numbers or transcendental numbers. OK, I'm not God, but let me see how well I can explain it given those limitations...

The circumference of a circle is approximately three times its diameter. In fact it is a little greater than this.

If the diameter is one cubit, the circumference is a little over three cubits. If the diameter is ten cubits, the circumference is a little over 31 cubits. If the diameter is 100 cubits, the circumference is a little over 314 cubits. If the diameter is 1000 cubits, the circumference is a little over 3141 cubits. If the diameter is 10000 cubits the circumference is a little over 31415 cubits. If the diameter is 100000 cubits the circumference is a little over 314159 cubits.

No matter what whole number of cubits you choose for the diameter, the circumference will never be a whole number of cubits. One day, perhaps, your descendents will understand enough to be able to prove this for themselves.

In the meantime, three is a good approximation for everyday purposes.

Just imagine if the BabbleBible had said that. This was a time when nobody in the world had even the faintest concept that there were irrational numbers (numbers that could not be expressed as the ratio of two whole numbers, such as five-eighths) let alone that there were transcendental numbers (not the roots of non-zero polynomial equations). This was a time when nobody in the world knew that π was a transcendental number and in fact thought it was the integer 3. This was a time when nobody in the world had the mathematical tools to prove that π was not an integer, let alone calculate it to five decimal places.

If that were in the BabbleBible, I'd find it a compelling reason to believe there was a God. That would be the sort of thing that God would know (he is, after all, omniscient) and the sort of thing those in Babblical times clearly did not know. It would have been the favourite mathematical puzzle for centuries until somebody finally proved it. And they'd have seen that the tools needed to prove it, and to calculate π to five decimal places, were far beyond the abilities of the authors of the Old Testament.

Inerrant fucking word of God? Don't make me laugh.


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