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Hey, it appears that the Church has changed its position – a minor miracle, obviously. The pope has fired his chief astronomer after a series of public clashes over the theory of evolution. Father George Coyne, an American Jesuit, was dismissed from his position as director of the Vatican Observatory after repeatedly contradicting the Holy See's endorsement of "intelligent design" theory, which essentially backs the revered "Adam and Eve" fable. You see, the pope favors the intelligent design notion, which says that God directs the process of evolution, while not denying Darwin’s original theory that species evolve through the random, unplanned processes of genetic mutation and the survival of the fittest. Evolution, which is now so firmly established that it cannot be ignored or denied by any but the terminally ignorant, is thus made only a tool of the omnipotent deity. The major flaw in such a picture is that Darwin is right even without any magical intervention; evolution takes place without any sort of direction by a mythological entity.
Coyne, director of the Vatican Observatory for 28 years, was an outspoken supporter of Darwin’s theory, arguing that it is compatible with Christianity – which is not at all true. Coyne attacked the intelligent design notion as a "religious movement" lacking any scientific merit, thereby perhaps suggesting that the Catholic view had some such merit. To me, it appears that the Catholic opposition to the intelligent design idea originally stemmed from the emphasis and acceptance placed on it by non-Catholic religions, but now it’s back in Vatican fashion.
Father Coyne had strong things to say after Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Vienna, a former student of the pope, presented the case for intelligent design in an op-ed article in the New York Times titled, “Finding Design in Nature.” Schonborn, jumping into the busy evolution debate in the USA, argued that Darwin’s statements on random variation and natural selection were counter to the Catholic stance that there is divine purpose and design in nature, and he said that evolution had become an atheistic weapon that was being used against the Church.
Speaking at a conference in Florida a year ago, Coyne said that "intelligent design isn't science, even if it pretends to be." No argument from me on that point! It appears that in his speeches and his writing on intelligent design, Coyne was working without an imprimatur from the Vatican, which has never been known to operate in a democratic fashion, and has never entertained the idea of free speech.
The Vatican Observatory, now under new, safer, and much more reliable direction, has an interesting history. It began as a simple observational tower erected by Pope Gregory XIII in 1578. This was the Gregory who brought about the drastic changes in the Western calendar, appropriately now named, the Gregorian Calendar. By 1800, the tower was being used for real astronomy – rather than simple positional work, and a century later it was formally established as the Vatican Observatory. The Jesuits now operate it, working both from facilities south of Rome and from the University of Arizona in Tucson.
This is a strange – but effective – technique of the Vatican, taking science to its bosom only to more closely keep track of the ugly facts that might threaten Church control over thinking and acting.
The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) came close to admitting the error of condemning Galileo, but their failure to tackle the problem only accentuated the perceived lack of compatibility between science and religion that remains and will continue to be evident until the Church adopts reality and abandons superstition. That is a highly unlikely scenario. That Vatican Council gave much attention to the dearly wished-for reconciliation of Holy Scripture and science, but fell short of dealing with the Galileo fiasco.
Only recently – in 1992 – did the Church officially announce acceptance of the findings of Galileo, thus making a major but necessary move into the real world. Those facts, derived from earlier rather obviously true Copernican observations, were firmly and successfully argued by Galileo; any organization, even the Church, can only offend common sense and reality for a limited time, then must join in acceptance of the recognized facts. Though the Catholic Index of 1758 – barely a century after Galileo’s death – had withdrawn the ban on books suggesting that the Earth moved, and his “Dialogue,” the book that brought about his trial and conviction for heresy, was taken off the Index in 1822, the actual admission of error took a full three-and-a-half centuries to arrive.
Promptly after this munificent gesture of the Church was announced – it was designated as a “rehabilitation” of Galileo – there were a myriad of explanations offered for the travesty, many of them bringing in the tired old alibi of “interpretation” of the scriptures. This allows the Church to fall back on their pretext that readers should assume – when needed – a non-literal meaning of the words found in the Bible: the creation of the universe actually could have taken longer than seven days, there were perhaps more than two initial inhabitants of Eden, and there might have been more bread and fish on that mountain than we were taught in Sunday School…
Following the forgiving of Galileo, there were murmured speculations – even among the faithful – that further “rehabilitations” might be in the offing. We should not expect that. The rationalizations have a very, very, long way to go. For just a few, we have virgin birth, Heaven, Hell, transubstantiation, prayer, resurrection, and all sorts of other debris to clear away. Who’s next…?
(Confronted by a religious fundamentalist with the question, “Then how do you explain how all those people were fed with just a few loaves and fishes?” my friend Jim Gardner thought a bit, and suggested, “Small portions?” I’m proud to know Jim, and if I’m asked that question, I just may steal that excellent response…)
Reader Rick Wannall, who proudly designates himself as a volunteer at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, opened his Wall Street Journal and had an attack of the vapors:
My jaw is still on the floor. I opened the Journal today to find, on the front page, a full column (plus most of another one inside) reporting the reactions of astrologers to the reclassification of Pluto.
If there is a more discredited collection of bunk on the planet, I would be hard pressed to figure out what that would be.
“Dedicated stargazers”? Astrologers? Hardly. To suggest that these people pay the slightest attention to anything remotely based in fact, other than the psychology of those who seek their services, would be laughable if it were not horrifyingly misleading. Owing to the precession of equinoxes over centuries, the planets are not even in the so-called “houses” where they were located back when the signs were established. Their so-called readings are not even based on the current state of the objects that they claim to depend on for the readings.
But it’s worse, much worse. Not one, single, properly conducted, double-blind test of astrology or its variants has ever given the slightest indication that there might be any genuine correlation between the positions or movements of planets and the characteristics of human beings.
Why the Wall Street Journal would report the reactions of astrologers to an issue of genuine scientific concern is beyond me. To link them with the reclassification of planets is to suggest that somehow what they do is related in some way to science. Nothing could be further from the truth, and the Journal should be ashamed to contribute to this continuing confusion.
Rick, I also noted the demotion of Pluto to a “dwarf planet” category, and except for a minor choking sound, I had little serious reaction. After all, it was the International Astronomical Union who met to make this decision, and any body that has decided in its wisdom to name an asteroid after me, cannot be doubted. (That’s the minor planet formerly known as Asteroid 3163/1981QM C, now know as “3163 Randi – in case you’ve forgotten.)
Take a look at an article by Max Fagin that appeared recently in CSICOP’s Skeptical Briefs. It may be an approach that you can use to explain and/or resolve the strange situation in which an otherwise intelligent person exhibits an embrace of irrational beliefs. Max’s personal experiences with this problem reveal the varied turns and twists that you can expect to find when trying to get through to the challenged devotee of woo-woo. This is no Grand Solution to the puzzle, but it certainly gives the reader fair warning of what can be found in the mind of The True Believer. It can be found at www.csicop.org/sb/2006-06/predictions.html. Generously provided by Barry Karr.
Faithful long-time reader Paul C. Anagnostopoulos, referring to last week’s item at www.randi.org/jr/2006-08/082506yet.html#i5, provides us with his own favorite hilarious quote from Guattari, in his "Chaosmosis" – which title is – in itself – a minor titter. Writes Guattari:
We can clearly see that there is no bi-univocal correspondence between linear signifying links or archi-writing, depending on the author, and this multireferential, multidimensional machinic catalysis. The symmetry of scale, the transversality, the pathic non-discursive character of their expansion: all these dimensions remove us from the logic of the excluded middle and reinforce us in our dismissal of the ontological binarism we criticised previously. A machinic assemblage, through its diverse components, extracts its consistency by crossing ontological thresholds, non-linear thresholds of irreversibility, ontological and phylogenetic thresholds, creative thresholds of heterogenesis and autopoiesis. The notion of scale needs to be expanded to consider fractal symmetries in ontological terms.
Bear in mind that this gobbledygook is actually intended to be serious work from a real scientist, folks. Can you imagine how convoluted it can get when this poor man tries to make a simple request? I’ll bet he can improve on this post-modern version – which I have created – of, “Please pass the salt”:
If your satisfaction factor is met sufficiently, I would be edified upon your eventual temporary, mechanically-implemented, digital (“hand”-referenced) transfer of the observed and indicated container of natrum muriaticum, in my direction.
Hey, that’s not bad at all! It’s unclear, muddy, overdone, and complicated. Maybe I can now say I’m a real scientist…?
Back in 1991, I taped a series for Granada TV at their Manchester studios. It was titled, “James Randi – Psychic Investigator.” For one episode, I invited the very popular TV stars Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie to participate. These are both very level-headed guys who deride the paranormal and the supernatural in much the same way that I do. To observe this, go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZOi1Jj11fo4 where you’ll see a very clever skit in which Hugh Laurie pretty well borrows from the phrasing of a Geller performance to portray a typical “psychic” guessing-session, when interviewed by Stephen Fry.
We all three – Fry, Laurie, and I – stayed at the Manchester Holiday Inn while producing the series. One night, the fire alarm went off and a thousand or so guests of the hotel poured out onto the streets clad in white bathrobes, and looking very much as if the Roman Senate had assembled outdoors and late at night. Well, Fry and Laurie were quickly recognized by the crowd, though I went pretty well unnoticed. My series had not yet begun to assail the UK audience. In any case the three of us ended up doing a bit of “busking” right there on the street. There were no curtain calls – no curtain, you see – and there was little time for bows or for applause.
Presently, Hugh Laurie is wowing American audiences with his TV series, “House,” the story of a very irreverent and acerbic medical diagnostician – Dr. Gregory House – and I envision all sorts of awards coming to this series and to actor Laurie. In any case reader Brian Miller provides us with a few quotes from the “House” script:
You talk to God, you're religious. God talks to you, you're psychotic.
Faith; that's another word for ignorance, isn't it? I've never understood how people can be so proud of believing in something with no proof at all, like that's an achievement.
I fear for the human race. A teenager claims to be the voice of God and people with advanced degrees are listening.
You can see much more about this interesting series, which can be seen Wednesdays at 8:30 p.m. on Fox-TV, by going to www.tv.com/house/show/22374/summary.html. In any case, you can see that Hugh Laurie and I pretty well agreed on a basic philosophy.
At www.randi.org/jr/032803.html I related a news item about a fish that was providing apocalyptic messages to anyone who would listen. Well, it seems that the report was read and believed by the King of Woo-Woo, Uri Geller, who gets all his media space these days by making inane comments that the popular press just cannot pass up. Yes, Uri is urging us to accept weeping/bleeding virgin statues, chatty fish, and statues that drink milk. He says,
I believe that in a cynical and skeptical world, signposts for the human spirit must be luminous and unmistakable. Subtle hints to the soul go unnoticed. The message has to be delivered in lurid capitals and bellowed through a megaphone. If messages through a fish seem an eccentric way for God to communicate, it is important to remember the higher intelligence has been attempting to communicate with us for thousands of years through more conventional and low-key means, such as books. So a fish makes an excellent loudspeaker for a Torah reading.
Ah, that clarifies this for us all. I must admit, it had me puzzled.
(Now, a burning question here is whether or not Geller actually believes this juvenile fantasy-trip. I’d vote for “not,” because it’s obvious that he’s frantically scratching at every door, just trying to keep in view. He’s smart enough to know better, but cunning enough to promote such woo-woo because he knows it will provide yet another line or two in the media. Just my opinion, of course.)
Though I suspect that it might be illegal – and is certainly impolite – to encourage the daft in their delusions, author Irene Thompson, whose book “It’s A Miracle” is published this month, believes that these revelatory events are becoming increasingly tailored to the needs of ordinary people. She writes:
They aren’t just rare, dramatic, biblical and life-changing experiences, they are more likely to happen to ordinary people going about their daily lives. There is usually no logical explanation for why a miracle has happened, a life was saved or a patient cured. Even if an explanation can be attributed to natural phenomena, the timing and combination of factors influencing the miracle suggest the intervention of God or a higher power.
Ms. Thompson, you’ll note, satisfies the requirements of a woo-woo author. She automatically incorporates a belief in a deity, she asserts that there are no other explanations for claimed miracles, and she says that just the reports of miracles establish that they actually occurred. This may be a new level of credulity for other authors to emulate. It certainly sells books.
Currently, these wonders are all around us. Hundreds of thousands of devotees flocked back to temples in northern India this last month as the news spread that – once again – statues of an elephant-headed Hindu god named Ganesh were drinking milk. See www.randi.org/jr/080202.html for a previous account of this miracle. A pregnant woman recently spotted Jesus watching over the baby in her womb during a routine ultrasound scan. He apparently had the time to devote to this task, ignoring nuns drowning in the Mediterranean. Religious inscriptions and symbols have been found inside freshly sliced vegetables. A Blessed Virgin was discovered in a Mexican puddle, and across a Florida skyscraper, and even in a pork rind in a pub. From Western Australia to Spain, statues have been crying perfumed tears or, even more dramatically, weeping streams of blood; though samples of the blood often test out as from a male donor, the rationalization is offered that this is Mary’s son’s blood, you see. In Pittsburgh, the image of Jesus has appeared to a woman in a recent magnetic resonance imaging scan of her body. And another woman has discovered an entire crucifixion scene in an x-ray of her spine.
Spell that, “crucifiction.”
So Geller and Thompson, as well as millions of the blindly faithful, discover sacred symbols, faces, and even gods, in everything from veggies to medical scans.
And the world turns…