Dark arts

For some reason, far too late last night I found myself following a contentious thread on a site I don’t normally visit, because (as in this instance) it tends to be a slanging match between Creationists and Atheists. I was just curious, honest.

One sub-topic caught my eye. On the Creationist side, someone mentioned the origin of biological information, which led to the not unfamiliar skeptical challenge to define such information mathematically or admit that there was nothing to discuss. Now personally I see infomation (a bit like “function” and “natures” really) as one of those teleological concepts in universal use in biology until it is named as such, when there is a scramble to disavow its existence beyond the metaphorical. But there is no doubt that all attempts to define such information in a rigorous way encounter frustration, at the point of distinguishing formally that which “does something” from that which is just a random string. Shannon information is sometimes held up as the only valid information theory, and that of course has nothing to say about what information means.

There was a telling point in the squabble when the original commenter suggested that demanding a formal mathematical treatment was casuistic, when a qualitative treatment of information was sufficient to pose the biological problem of information.The atheist’s reply came back:

Relying strictly on qualitative measures greatly increases the likelihood of being wrong. This is why charlatans flock to fields like psychology, sociology, and economics and tend to avoid math, physics, chemistry, and computer science.

That’s an interesting statement, relating as it does to the accusations of “physics envy” in the softer sciences, as well as to the New Atheists’ usually unstated tendency to mean by “science” only those disciplines that can be grounded in mathematical laws. “Scientism”, as in this case, tends to despise the human sciences – they are pseudo-disciplines to which charlatans flock. The same kind of accusation is made about philosophy, which again (despite the Bayesian equations of analytical philosophy) cannot be freed from controversy by mathematicisation. True science, on the other hand, removes controversy – which is why it’s a comforting religion for some.

It’s certainly true that human sciences are more vulnerable (but only more vulnerable) to human bias and even manipulation because they are more qualitatively based. But to imply, as this commenter and some more famous writers do, that this renders the fields empty of true knowledge, is to say more than most sane people would want to. Keep in mind that the original argument was that biological information, because it cannot be defined and expressed mathematically, actually doesn’t exist: life is not information-based at all.

The comparison with the despised soft-sciences, then, implies not only that charlatans flock to them, but that only charlatans flock to them, and that like astrology or phrenology, there is no truth-content to them at all. In other words, if psychology is pseudo-science, there is no such thing as mind to study: people’s thoughts are random. If sociology is chicanery, then society is an illusion; people relate to each other randomly. If economics is sleight-of-hand, then managing money is subject to neither concrete nor statistical rules. Which is as much as to claim that minds, society and money are non-existent.

Only the hard sciences, then, are capable of delivering truth… which claim is, however, clearly self-referential, in that science is produced by minds, for society, and costs money: such spontaneous generation ex nihilo would seem to be a very shaky basis for epistemology if accepted.

Now, one interesting point in the exchange to which I referred is that, in arguing about the status of biological information, our atheist anathematized psychology, sociology and economics, canonized maths, physics, chemistry and computer science – and didn’t mention biology at all. I venture to suggest that is because, on any criterion, it sits right on the fulcrum of the hard sciences and the soft sciences. Indeed, the paucity of mathematical precision in biology is proverbial, as the recent discussion about wildly variant results from the “biological clock” in human evolution exemplify. In fact, the term “physics envy”  was first applied to biology, leading to Ernst Mayr’s spirited defence of its uniqueness.

So if biological information eludes definition, it might be because, like phlogiston or the aether, it doesn’t exist. Or it might instead be that, like mind, society and money it’s a higher-level phenomenon than the mathematics appropriate to the physical science is, in the nature of things, capable of discerning, just as normal instruments cannot detect dark matter.

One needs, perhaps, to ponder what common factor might underlie all these indefinable entities.


About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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37 Responses to Dark arts

  1. Lou Jost 2 says:

    Even if we grant the ordinary creationist’s sense of “information”, there is no mystery as to how this arises in the genome. As I’ve mentioned before, and as one of your own posts agreed, random variations under natural selection will cause correlations between the environment and genome sequences. It’s not mysterious.

    Of course we can then ask why the environment has order, and that is a more interesting question.

    • Jon Garvey says:


      I’m not sure which post of mine promoted random variation and natural selection, but it’s of small importance, as (for the purposes of this post) is the means by which information arises. The matter here is that A cannot see any information at all, but C can.

      If in turn I grant the effects of an ordered environment in generating our indefinable biological information, then as you seem to suggest the information has simply been transferred from one medium to another.

      It’s perhaps more readable and compacted in the DNA code than the environment, in which it is even less mathematically tractable. That’s true even as mere Shannon information: bits in DNA is a common if rough calculation, but bits in the environment is more of a challenge.

      But on that model, it would seem that that information-rich life arises from an information-rich environment, which in turn (most plausibly) arises from an information-rich cosmos… though, truth to tell, there’s no way of excluding the input of new order/organisation/information at any stage along the way, since we can’t unequivocally quantify it anyway.

      • Lou Jost 2 says:

        The post I was referring to was your quoting someone you admired, who explained that information in the genome comes from the environment.

        “…there’s no way of excluding the input of new order/organisation/information at any stage along the way, since we can’t unequivocally quantify it anyway.”

        Maybe one could look for evidence for or against additional sources of information by looking at whether the coupling between the genome and the environment was strong enough, by itself, to produce the observed effects.

        • Jon Garvey says:

          “Maybe one could look for evidence for or against additional sources of information by looking at whether the coupling between the genome and the environment was strong enough, by itself, to produce the observed effects.”

          Easier said than done, when it’s seldom possible to link even any one phenotypic feature to any particular environmental factor apart from a plausible narrative. You’d need to have a mathematical measure for the information in both environment and organism, which is where we came in above.

          And of course, it’s one thing to have such a measure, and quite another to apply it to un-abstracted real-life systems. It would be the same problem as measuring the movement of every individual particle in the universe to check whether the whole of reality is accounted for – first catch your Laplacian demon.

          As soon as you use a more viable alternative, modelling, you’re automatically removing the details you’re searching for (in this case, input of new information) from the system.

          • Lou Jost 2 says:

            I think it is not impossible to do that. One could model the evolution of a particular molecular function and see what range of evolutionary rates are consistent with a given mutation rate and selection strength. If the answers are way too slow to account for the molecular evolutionary rates we actually see, then maybe something else is going on.

            But you guys who believe in the “something else” need to explain why this “something else” is as weak as it seems to be (since nobody has detected it yet). How can you believe in a god who wants to be known to us, yet who seems to work so hard to hide his hand?

  2. Merv Bitikofer says:

    “True science, on the other hand, removes controversy – which is why it’s a comforting religion for some.”

    Perhaps it removes controversy, or else controversy can also be enlisted as one of its strengths in the quests to hopefully settle some matters. The mystery is why those embroiled in Scientism accept it as a valid strength for science alone. For all other fields or philosophies, controversy is held as cause for dismissal.

    • Jon Garvey says:


      That seems a universal principle in polemics: “Look how divided you all are! Whereas we true believers have unanimity.” That used to be what Muslims threw at Christianity until is became obvious the Sunnis hated the Shia and vice versa.

      Perhaps you learn as much about a position (at least, in terms of positions on big questions) by how it handles its disagreements as by what it agrees on.

      • Lou Jost 2 says:

        “Perhaps you learn as much about a position (at least, in terms of positions on big questions) by how it handles its disagreements as by what it agrees on.”

        You sure you want to go there? Look at how religions have often handled disagreement. Beheadings, burning at the stake, suicide bombs, crusades, etc. Scientists rarely kill each other over disagreements.

        Disagreements among religious people often turn violent because there is no other recourse. It is always instructive to watch a Christian debate a Muslim, or a Hindu debate a Muslim. It reminds me of two bullies in a schoolyard arguing over whether Superman can beat up the Hulk. What can people do to settle disagreements over imaginary beings except insult or fight each other?

        • pngarrison says:

          I can’t resist this. A faculty member in my department who worked on microtubules told me of a guy who adopted one microbe as his system to study microtubules. He told the other researchers to stay away from his species. Most took him seriously, as he had been one of the group in the Warsaw ghetto who ambushed Nazis and killed them. 🙂

          Not the usual mode in science. I saw some bickering occasionally at meetings, but the disputes got resolved by everyone going back to their labs and figuring out how to do experiments that would resolve things.

          I did see someone not get a faculty position who was doing good work but was so disagreeable and combative that no one wanted them in the department.

          • Jon Garvey says:


            In my few months at the Pest Infestation Control Laboratory for the Ministry of Agriculture the only serious disputes I saw were over which soup to make for lunch.

            But I guess anecdotal evidence is inconclusive. And anyway, the real skulduggery is usually behind closed doors in any area of life.

  3. Merv Bitikofer says:

    Well sure, Lou, nobody’s going to kill each other over whether a measurement of something is accurate or biased. What religious folks may sometimes argue over are much bigger, more important, and much harder to resolve — like “should such and such activity be considered moral or immoral or situational?” It has direct impact on people’s lives and affects how communities are going to function together. And how God (or gods) may determine a situation are going to be of crucial importance too in the minds of believers. But all this said, it may also be instructive to look into science history to see how much emotional investment was put into pet theories of a time when someone deemed their career to be on the line, or even less –they had a reputation to protect. I suspect we’d find a dirtier mix than you would want to portray. But it would still fail to be instructive on this since so many scientists are religious.

    By the way, superman wins any day. I’ll meet you out on the schoolyard if you disagree.

    • Lou Jost 2 says:

      But the Hulk can bring kryptonite!- See you there…

      Emotional investment, which is indeed common in science, is different than killing people. I have never been to a physics or biology conference in which the participants even so much as raised their voices. I’ve yet to see a beheading at one of those conferences, even when discussing really big questions like the origin of the universe.

      The issues involved in religious killings are rather often trivial-sounding to outsiders, not big ethical issues.

      • Jon Garvey says:

        I’ve been to many week-long, interdenominational Christian conferences, and never saw any beheadings at all unless the organizers kept it very quiet. Nor any raised voices, except from Pentecostal preachers in whom it is endemic.

        To see killings in a scientific setting you might need to go to a part of the world where they also happen in religious discussions, which is not here. Over here “lack of trust, squabbles over authorship and turf battles” are more likely, as one scientific director said at a 2011 APA conference on conflict in science. One could add to that garrotting by anonymous peer review, mysterious failure to secure tenure etc. Killing softly is the Western Way.

        None of that’s new – I remember as a kid reading one of the late Isaac Asimov’s stories in which one character was the scientist ostracized by the professional community because of his non-mainstream theory on human origins (in this case, that man originated on earth). Knowing Asimov, he had some contemporary (1933) instance in mind. It would be interesting to know what it was.

        • Lou Jost 2 says:

          Again, ostracizing is not quite the same as killing people. And though western Christians don’t do it now, they used to, and some African Christians still do.

          No matter how hard I look, I can find no orders to kill people in any of major physics society guidelines, nor in the constitution of the major biological professional societies. Your own book of guidelines is full of such orders, for the silliest offenses, and in both the Old and New Testaments. And you believe those orders came straight from the top, not from some junior copywriter. And you worship this guy rather than criticize him for this.

          • Jon Garvey says:

            Settling disagreements was, I believe, the context, so it’s hardly relevant to invoke judicial processes ancient or modern, human or divine. But since you brought up the distant past, there are some examples from science that reinforce my point that it is human nature v human nature that is the issue, rather than religion or science – you are the one who seems to want to make that false division, and that only confirms the point I made: you are perpetuating the polemic of “You are divided, we are united.”

            We could start with Francis Bacon’s observation on “artificers”, that “no kind of people are observed to be more implacably and destructively envious to one another than these.”

            One contemporary example would be Tycho Brahe v Ursus, slagging each other off for daring to promote rival theories. Brahae had already “lost part of his nose in a duel with his third cousin over a difference in their appraisal of mathematical formulae.” Ursus died in 1600, after which Tycho Brahe burned all the copies of Reimarus’ rebuttal, which no doubt finally settled the science. Galileo, not that long after, contributed to the collegiate spirit of astronomy by refusing to lend Kepler one of his telescopes (yes, the same Kepler to whom he complained that some philosophers wouldn’t even look through his instruments).

            Newton’s feud with Hooke over the theories of light and gravity outlived Hooke – Newton’s belittling of him in the Royal Society even included the mysterious loss of the only known portrait of him.

            Cope’s palaeontological rivalry with Marsh did not lead to murder – only to public denunciations, theft, the destruction of specimens and mutual social and financial ruin. But what are a few old bones when science is at stake?

            Edison v Westinghouse http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/edison-vs-westinghouse-a-shocking-rivalry-102146036/?no-ist is a darker episode. America’s first AC electric chair was built and used, with Edison’s secret finance, as a direct result of Edison’s campaign that his rival’s AC electricity would kill householders, unlike than his own “safe” DC current. Westinghouse, appalled, said they’d have done better to use an axe. Edison was ostensibly against the death penalty, but his desire to discredit his scientific rival resulted in a very bad death for some poor beggar, if you don’t count all those since. As unpleasant a collaboration between personal ambition and the State as anything you’d see in Medician Italy.

            Physicist Paul Langevin’s pistol duel with a journalist over Marie Curie probably doesn’t count as both backed down from firing, and the science was a secondary matter to sexual scandal. But it was a bit *mediaeval* for a scientist of the enlightened twentieth century, as well as having been illegal in France for 300 years.

            However, moving on in time Lysenko’s public denunciation of Mendelians to Stalin at a scientific conference in 1935, unlike later denunciations (eg those of rocket scientists like Korolev by their rivals, obtained under state torture), was fired by ambition to see his own theory prevail. It resulted in their deaths.

            The political situation renders such extremes unlikely in recent years in the West, but it’s not that many years since the feud between Sandage and de Vaucouleurs went beyond politeness at a conference: “They got up, and they were duking it out in front of the audience.” Similarly “raucous” was a conference on breast screening in the 1990s, owing to the differing viewpoints of the stakeholder disciplines.

            • Lou Jost 2 says:

              “…You are perpetuating the polemic of “You are divided, we are united.””
              No, that had nothing to do with my comment. I did not deny scientists have disputes. I said directly that they did and do. I was instead commenting on HOW science settles disputes compared to how religions settle disputes. (That was the point of the quotation you gave, saying that you can tell a lot about a position by how they settle disputes.) And I pointed out that you worship someone who tells you –in writing—to kill those who disagree with you about religious matters, while there are no such commands in science texts.

              • Merv Bitikofer says:

                Lou, I’m glad your engagement with science is magnitudes deeper than your understanding of Christianity… (it had better be any way). Where you get these nonsensical ideas about what the Bible teaches is anybody’s guess. See my comment below.

              • Lou Jost 2 says:

                Looks like WordPress will once again let me comment here…..”Where you get these nonsensical ideas about what the Bible teaches is anybody’s guess.”

                Merv, these are well-known Bible passages. Many times your god orders the Israelites to kill unbelievers. Also to make sex slaves of the virgin girls, etc. You know this very well because we’ve discussed it at length before here. Your excuses below are not consistent with your belief in a loving god or with your belief that morals are unchanging and come from god. You admit this below, when you accuse me of taking these things out of their cultural context. How can you say that mass murder and genocide and taking sex slaves was fine back then? In other places you will say that right and wrong are absolute qualities handed to us by god, this same god who ordered his people to do the opposite. Do you really think there is no contradiction in your position? Many thoughtful Christians have found these issues problematic. It surprises me that you don’t.

  4. Merv Bitikofer says:

    “Your own book of guidelines is full of such orders, for the silliest offenses, and in both the Old and New Testaments. And you believe those orders came straight from the top, not from some junior copywriter. ”

    Lou, this is wrong at multiple levels, but let me just deal with the main one. Our “book” is not full of such orders in any sort of standing sense, but does record times when historical peoples carried such things out … with or without God’s prior command or after-the-fact sanction. And what seems silly or horrifying to you and most all of us now was certainly not silly to them at the time. Only those not interested in truth or understanding can wrest things out of context (and far more egregiously: out of its cultural backdrop) for the purpose of present-day caricature.

    You’re right about the Hulk bit. I did always think Superman a bit naive in how he dealt (or failed to deal) with that little weakness of his. The Hulk could probably just eat the stuff. Might add some extra luster to that nice green skin of his.

    • Lou Jost 2 says:

      We’ve been through this before. Your god ordered people many times to kill other people because they believed in the wrong god. The OT is indeed replete with such orders. Your god also ordered people to take sex slaves, kill babies and fetuses, etc. Some of these do seem like standing orders (and some are repeated in the NT). Even if these were only limited orders, they are horrible orders. We could probably make excuses for Superman, but how can you find a context in which these orders are excusable, at the same time that you supposedly believe in absolute moral precepts? Anyway, science guidelines do not have such orders, which is my main point.

      Let’s just drop this, if possible. I’d rather not read a repeat of that horrible thread a year or two ago in which many of the commenters here (with some notable exceptions, like Eddie) did try to justify these horrors ordered by your god.

  5. pngarrison says:


    You need to produce any repeat of those commands in the New Testament. I can’t recall anything like that. It is described that God struck a couple of people dead, but He does that all the time. We all die, sometimes unexpectedly.

    A good case can be made that the disagreement over trans-substantiation was a very major factor in the religious wars of the Reformation, which I regard as probably the greatest screw-up in the history of the church. An early convocation between Roman and Reformed scholars (which Luther refused to attend) reached a consensus statement on justification by faith, but broke up over trans-substantiation. When you look at the downstream consequences of that dispute, it becomes appalling.

    • Lou Jost 2 says:

      Preston, I don’t think Christians have ever convincingly explained why they think that OT stuff is now irrelevant. Christians almost unanimously believe that Jesus and the OT god are aspects of the same being, and most also believe that morals are absolute and timeless. So I don’t see how one can excuse the god-ordered atrocities of the OT.

      Furthermore, the NT contains some echoes of that intolerance and license to murder in the name of god. For example, Romans 1:20-32 seems to support the old order that gays and idolaters should be put to death. In similar fashion, in Matthew, Jesus seems to note approvingly Deuteronomy’s orders to parents to kill their kids if they are disrespectful.

      Then there is Jesus’ famous lines supporting all the harsh, intolerant laws of the OT:
      “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke or a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.” Matthew 5:17-18.

      And historically, the church took those orders seriously until recently. They burned heretics at the stake when they had the power to do so, and fought religious wars against Muslims. It was only relatively recently that our societies matured and Christians began to behave, began to reject slavery, respect women’s rights, respect human diversity. For much of its history, it seems to me that Christianity has not been a force leading ethical progress, but has rather been a reluctant, conservative force dragged forward (sometimes kicking and screaming) by the ethical evolution of humanity in general. This seems to me to be true today as well, at least in the US.

  6. GD says:

    These comments have a habit of resurfacing as anti-Christians take an approach (they scream is inappropriate when addressing their views), that of selective quote mining.

    I have not, nor do I see a need, justify any atrocity discussed anywhere, including the Bible. Any reasonable person will see that the Bible is filled with accounts where people have acted contrary to the Law (which is articulated as the Ten Commandments) – these actions are recorded for that purpose, to show how we human beings act, and also the consequences of such atrocious acts. These remarks by atheists are an extreme distortion of Biblical teachings, and also are an attempt to project a different (and contradictory) view of human nature.

    To read the OT and ignore teachings such as those quoted below, displays ignorance or worse:

    Deuteronomy 30:19 (KJV) I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live:

    Jeremiah 21:8 (KJV) And unto this people thou shalt say, Thus saith the LORD; Behold, I set before you the way of life, and the way of death.

    The very essence of Biblical teachings is for people to consciously turn away from evil acts such as killing, slavery, slander, and hatred. The essence of the Christian faith is a rebirth of the human who commits atrocious acts, into a human being who does not.

    I again point out the extreme lengths anti-Christians take to paint Biblical teachings as commands from a pathologically insane being to helpless humans, who are then compelled to commit atrocious acts to others. This shows an unhealthy obsession by anti-Christians, and distorts teachings and examples, on matters that show why we need to turn away from being a horrific race and the necessity to become people exemplified by Christ.

    • Edward Robinson says:


      The cases Lou is referring to are not cases where God has commanded human beings to refrain from killing and they have disobeyed his word. He is referring to cases where God has actually ordered the killing. Your analysis does not apply to those cases, and therefore the difficulty raised by Lou remains.

      I do not hold the same low view of the Bible as Lou, but at the same time, his point regarding the slaughter of the Canaanites is not one that is simply answered. It has been a difficult problem for Christians for hundreds if not thousands of years. It gave great impetus to the skepticism regarding religion that was characteristic of the Enlightenment. One can’t simply pretend that certain Biblical passages don’t exist.

      In my day, at least, such passages never seemed to be read in the weekly “cycle of readings” at church, which allegedly covered the whole Bible every two or three years. Clearly the church was embarrassed by the passages, and instinctively felt that something was “wrong” with them. Indeed, I did not even know that such passages were in the Bible, until their existence was pointed out to me in Enlightenment writings. Clearly the church — at least my church — did not want the people in the pews to be reminded of those passages. But the problem in those passages was never addressed; it was just passed over in silence. The tacit pastoral principle seemed to be: “If you can’t say something nice about a Biblical passage, don’t say anything about it at all; read them First Corinthians instead.”

      I do not pretend to have an answer to the question why such passages are in the Bible. The simplest answer is that the Biblical authors were convinced that God gave such commands. If God did give those commands, what should the Christian response to that be? On the other hand, if God did not give those commands, if those commands were put in the mouth of God by selfish human authors, in order to justify Israel’s conquest and annihilation of the Canaanites, then what consequence does that have for the claim that *all* of the Bible is divinely inspired?

      As I say, I have no answer to such difficult questions. I accept neither the Enlightenment tendency to dismiss all of the Bible and Christianity as evil, based on such passages, nor the defensive reflexes of many “conservative evangelicals” in the USA who resort to sometimes desperate rationalizations to avoid the tremendous moral/spiritual problem such passages indicate. I regard the jury as out; I remain open to some genuinely Christian explanation of such statements, but have none to offer myself. In the meantime, I do not take those particular episodes as models for Christian behavior toward non-Christians.

      • GD says:

        Hi Eddie,

        I do not see a need to justify the matter that Lou (and now you) raises; my point was that anyone who wishes to understand such passages in the OT should read and get the context, and then make any conclusions he/she may wish to. Since this aspect has become an obsession in these exchanges, I have looked through sections, and have obtained the following verses, to hopefully show some context to such matters:

        Num 13-14. Det 20:17. Jos 7:9. Jos 17:12. Jos 24:11, and numerous accounts in Judges. There are also accounts which show that initially Israel tried to negotiate a peaceful passage through these lands and they were met with deadly force. You may also note that on instances where Israel did not display faith in God, they were defeated by the Canaanites.

        All of these passages (and many others), would make sense imo, if we accept the major premise, in that Moses (and later Joshua) were obeying God’s command to create a nation to fulfil the promise to Abraham. We need to understand all the, “thus says the LORD” statements are uttered by Moses (and Joshua) in this context.
        Now your (Lou and you) specific complaint regarding the verse stating Canaanites should be eliminated, my guess is that in the language of today, it may be stated as, “from our experiences with them, we know the Canaanites will take no prisoners, nor negotiate – so it is a fight to the finish.”

        Again I restate this (hopefully for the last time) that no-one needs to, or should try, to justify any portion of the Bible. My (perhaps meagre) understanding is that these passages reflect the way people existed during those times, and also the obvious faults of Israel, which led them to conflicts and often defeats; if they had displayed the faith required of them, the events may be very different and we would read differing accounts in the Bible. Thus they are not examples of what Christians should do – I take these to show at a deeper level, what can happen if we claim to live by faith, but when/if this is tested, we fail and end up with many difficulties. Spending 40 years in a desert until a new generation of Israelites replaced them, would to an aggressive atheist, appear cruel. Just when do we accept the consequences of our own actions, especially if we have Moses performing great works and signs before us – I think God showed great patience in all of this.

        I think you understand enough Eddie, to realise that anti-Christians who have a bug, would find fault in the Bible (and the Faith) whatever is written in it.

        • Lou Jost 2 says:

          So you think genocide and sex slavery was justifiable this one time. What happened to absolute morals? And why do you insult your god’s creativity? You think your omnipotent, omnisicent god had his hands on every detail of the universe, including the evolution of humans. Couldn’t he have figured out some way to avoid setting up a situation in which he had to order his people to commit moral atrocities? There are so many ways he could have avoided the situation, even without interfering with people’s free will. He could have put locusts (which he seemed to enjoy manipulating in other occasions) on the land until the Israelites got there. He could have made dust storms or droughts there to drive out the Canaanites. He could have steered evolution so that Canaanites less nasty, or less smart, or less aggressive, or more open to learning and diplomacy. He could have revealed to the Israelites some impressive new scientific knowledge that would make the other nations respect them militarily (much as the Allies used the knowledge of nuclear power to avoid genocide in Japan at the end of WW2). What a puny god your bible describes.

          • GD says:

            Ok Lou, you do not like the god you imagine, and if this imagined god of yours was really god, he should have consulted you on how to be a god that would meet with your approval.

            I can add to your long list (to show you that I am not trying to change your mind), culminating in what, to an aggressive anti-Christian like you would amount to the very worst thing imaginable – that is, God allowing His Son to be brutalised and killed, without any lawful justification. Your rant should go something like this, “what sort of god would allow that? he could have made a storm to drive the Romans out, or changed the politics amongst the Jews, etc etc”

            I have to confess, your tirades seem never ending – we disagree, why not leave it at that!

            • Lou Jost 2 says:

              You’re right, “God had to pretend to kill himself to save humans from something he himself set them up for” is also senseless, if the god is supposed to be omnipotent.

              • Jon Garvey says:


                I confess that, though I may sometimes find the assumptions of some materialist scientists dubious, I’d think twice before I dismissed as “senseless” something that has directed the lives (and deaths) of many billions of people, including some of the best minds, even in science, over the last 2000 years.

                In fact, that alone would engender my respect as much as pure caution – at least enough to remember that they call their god “God”, when dialoguing with them.

                And now you’ve shown quite adequately that you consider them all fools – and by definition also the owners of this blog, which you choose to frequent – perhaps we can take it as read that you believe that, and you can take it as read that we reject it. And the subject can be closed.

                For I see nothing in it remotely relevant to the post, which was about over-restrictive definitions of knowledge (particularly relating to human v natural sciences) and which had no theological content at all.

              • Lou Jost 2 says:

                If you look back at the comments above, you’ll see that my comments were in response to yours and Merv’s, and were relevant to them.

                “I’d think twice before I dismissed as “senseless” something that has directed the lives (and deaths) of many billions of people, including some of the best minds, even in science, over the last 2000 years.”

                Do you think the existence of the Hindu pantheon is something that we should hesitate to dismiss? That belief too has directed the lives of billions of people, including some scientists, and for much more than 2000 years.

          • Hanan says:

            >He could have put locusts (which he seemed to enjoy manipulating in other occasions) on the land until the Israelites got there.

            I thought he did. Not the locusts, but hornets. Exodus 23:28

            • Hanan says:

              Lou, I too, like you are disturbed by many things. I would like to offer you a different perspective. Not our perspective, but the ancient Israelite one. So why DOES it say genocide in the Pentatuech? Well…lets get down to the facts, even if you DO take Joshua as factual history, an important question lingers. Why didn’t the Israelites complete the job? As other scholars have noticed, from Judges on, the Israelites lived amongst the Canaanites. They clearly did NOT do what they wrote in the Bible. So why write it? I would like to offer you the thinking (or theology) of the Israelites:

              God is god of all. He doesn’t disfavor those that don’t believe in him but those that act immorally. It is clear in the Pentateuch that the theology is that the Canaanite lost rights to the land…not for their disbelief but for their immoral behavior towards one another. Abraham is TOLD he cannot have the land because…..well, God cannot just punish the Canaanite since they have not deserved the punishment. The Israelites are TOLD they are entering the land NOT because they are so awesome, but because the Canaanite have acted immoral. And not only that, but the Israelites would suffer the same fate if they are not careful. This is not apologetics. It’s in the text.

              So my point is this. Most scholars agree what happened in Joshua is not exactly how the conquest happened but instead, probably more in line with Judges. Meaning, a slow migration and settlement with war along the way. So the question is, if it didn’t happen, why write it? I hope I gave you a different perspective (based on the text) that may help in understanding the Israelites. For the Israelites, this WAS moral: God would not punish a people unwarranted – even if they ARE pagans – but only judges based on their actions.

              Do I think the God of Israel inspires genocide? No. I don’t. Clearly at the times that the Israelites believed in YHWH they did not just go willy nilly and butcher the population around them. The books of Kings and onwards make it clear they live with them and in fact…..are part of their inner courts.

              So if it did not inspire them then, I do no fear Christians or Jews going around to butcher peoples now.

      • Lou Jost 2 says:

        Eddie, thanks for seeing my point, even if you disagree with my conclusion.

        I’d like to add that neither I nor most other atheists think the Bible or Christianity is entirely evil. The main reason I harp on this issue is because, in my opinion, it shows the Christian view to be logically inconsistent, even if we grant that god does exist and has the qualities Christians attribute to him. The obvious way out of this dilemma is to realize that the bible is written by people with a mixture of motives, including the motives of justifying their wars and their ruling dynasties, and was not edited word-for-word by god. This conclusion is supported by much other internal and external evidence. People could accept this conclusion, and still believe in god. Doing so would be healthy and would make theism less dangerous for the world. I am not so much anti-theist or anti-Christian, rather I am against the fiction of authoritative revelation (Christian, Muslim, Hindu, or other).

  7. Jon Garvey says:


    I recognise the “silent embarrassment” of some churches – at a Baptist church in the early 80s I used to spend boring (usually trite) sermons checking out the bits of the psalms they missed out in those at the back of the Baptist Hymnal. Invariably they were those to do with judgement and other non-white-middle-class elements.

    This isn’t the place (probably not even the blog) to account for the Canaanite issue fully. I’ll address only what’s relevant to Lou’s accusation which, unfortunately, is parroted “skeptical sham rage” lifted from the textbook.

    The main point is that it is just as mischievous a distortion to say “your god tells you to commit genocide”, as to say “your god says he will send great floods regularly to kill everyone”. Israel was given a one-off command as God’s newly formed covenant people, settling once-for-all in the place of certain nations that God had earmarked for judgement – and stayed his hand – since the time of Abraham (Gen 15.16).

    Israel was given no law allowing such acts for the future (on the contrary being given restraining laws for the conduct or warfare); and no reputable theologians, Jewish or Christian, have ever invoked the episode as paradigmatic for their own nations’ conduct of foreign policy. Instead, just war theology was developed, when indeed pacificism wasn’t advocated by many.

    If the charge were, “This one episode in the Bible casts doubt on God’s goodness”, then I for one would be more convinced it was a sincere scruple, because it would suggest a careful engagement with the issue rather than mere bigotry. But why should one even deign to reply to someone who says, “your god commands you to rape”? The British National Secular Society were putting out stuff exactly like that back in the early 1970s – at least the Creationist Fundamentalists show signs of modifying their polemic in response to what they hear.

    But to a sincere questioner, I would answer along the lines of core Christian convictions, which they would be welcome to accept or despise:
    Will God not finally judge all nations through destruction (and is not the background to the preaching of forgiveness?) (eg 2 Pet 3.7)
    Has he not judged nations throughout history? (eg Acts 17.26)
    Has he not used sinful men to do so? (eg Luke 21.20-24)
    Are any innocent before God? (eg Rom 3.9-18)
    Do we not have Scriptural teaching on God’s bringing his covenant people into his counsel with regards to his judgements? (eg Gen 18.16ff, 1 Cor 6.2)

    Conversely, of course, one is entitled to ask, given the moral positions of warring human societies throughout history, and even of belligerent democracies like the US, Britain, the EU, etc, nowadays, what basis one has for saying that 20th century Liberal Idealism should be the basis on which God runs his world. If it is always morally reprehensible that civilians should be killed, why do we willingly pay taxes to governments that engage in it on a mass scale? Why do we not curse our parents, for fighting in World War II? Why are Teller and Oppenheimer not anathematized by the skeptical science community?

    Do we blame all those things on God for making the world like it is? Christian teaching is that he blames us.

    • Lou Jost 2 says:

      “Why do we not curse our parents, for fighting in World War II?”
      Because they were not omnipotent. They found themselves stuck in an impossible position. Your omnipotent god knew no such limitations. See my comments to GD above for ways he could have avoided ordering his people to commit atrocities.

      You complain that I said “your god tells you to commit genocide.” Granted, he did not make this a standing command. But he ordered his people to do it, and not just once. Either your god really didn’t order this, in which case your view of the bible is wrong, or he did order it, and your view of a perfect, benevolent, omnipotent god is wrong.

      Some of the things I complain about were indeed standing orders. I could make a long list. Stone disbelievers and adulterers and gays, treat women like possessions, say it is ok to treat your non-Hebrew slaves brutally as long as you do not kill them, etc.

      “Do we blame all those things on God for making the world like it is?”

      Well, yes, you should, if you take seriously your constant claims that your god designed the laws of nature and had his hands in every detail of our evolution.

  8. Jon Garvey says:

    Lou Jost @ http://potiphar.jongarvey.co.uk/2015/03/13/dark-arts/#comment-8265>this

    “Perhaps you learn as much about a position (at least, in terms of positions on big questions) by how it handles its disagreements as by what it agrees on.”

    You sure you want to go there? Look at how religions have often handled disagreement. Beheadings, burning at the stake, suicide bombs, crusades, etc. Scientists rarely kill each other over disagreements.

    Read the thread again – Merv’s remark, to which you reply as above, arose from the OP’s remark about the scientistic dismissal of the human sciences and philosophy as divided – you used it to launch a second attack on religion, having failed to gain any takers for your first introduction of religious polemic to the thread:

    But you guys who believe in the “something else” need to explain why this “something else” is as weak as it seems to be (since nobody has detected it yet). How can you believe in a god who wants to be known to us, yet who seems to work so hard to hide his hand?

    No connection to the article or the discussion at all, but the expression of a desire to bring a challenge of Christian beliefs to every conversation. The party bore, quite frankly.

    As for the Hindu pantheon, I challenge you to find a single remark in the 700 posts on this (Christian) blog in which the views of Hindus (or others) were dismissed as ridiculous. And even if I wished to argue that point with Hindus, I would not barge in on a blog in which Hindus discuss their approach to science, and I would do it with a listening ear and respect for the reasons for their beliefs. It’s a simple question of human respect.

    But in any case, if ones host asks one to desist in a line of argument, it’s impolitic as well as impolite to keep arguing. Our policy (as is obvious from the continued conversation thus far) is radically more liberal than, say, Jerry Coyne’s, but there are limits which just three people have exceeded in the last 4 years we’ve been going. Please change your tone, or join them.

    • Lou Jost 2 says:

      If I thought you were fools, I wouldn’t be here. I hoped my comments might influence you to look at your beliefs from the outside, and I hoped you would notice that your own cultural biases on this matter are at least as strong as the biases you constantly accuse scientists of having. I also hoped my comments on your science posts might be helpful. As neither seems likely any more, I’ll bow out. If I have time some day, I’ll start my own blog on these topics. That’s probably what I should have done at the beginning.

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