Wednesday: Hili dialogue

A: Hili, why are you sitting under the stairs?
Hili: Because of the lack of a new, attractive cardboard box.

In Polish:
Ja: Hili, czemu siedzisz pod schodami?
Hili: Z powodu braku nowego atrakcyjnego kartonu.

My New Republic piece on “atheism of the gaps”

The New Republic has published a revised version of my “atheism of the gaps” post from yesterday. In the magazine it’s now called “Atheists could learn a lot from religious people about how to win debates”.

Give ‘em a click to keep the love and secularism flowing.  I’ve added a few references and a couple new “religion of the gaps” arguments.  Thanks to the readers for weighing in.

The faitheists and believers aren’t gonna like this one. Expect some explanations for things like evil and Jesus’s broken promise to appear in his contemporaries’ lifetime.


A gorgeous 100 million year-old robber

by Matthew Cobb

Anyone who’s watched Jurassic Park knows that back in the time of the dinosaurs, flies would get stuck in amber and then hove up, millions of years later, for the delectation of scientists. A paper has just come out from Torsten Dikow and David Grimaldi, describing a new species of robber fly (Asilidae) found in Cretaceous amber, around 100 million years old.

Just think. 100 million years old. All that time ago, this fly was buzzing around. The specimen is simply stunning. Even if you don’t like flies, this is just gorgeous:


This is a male of the newly described genus and species Burmapogon bruckschi. The etymology is sadly rather dull:

“From Burma, the original name of the country where this amber is deposited, and Greek pogon, “beard,” a common suffix of Asilidae generic names, referring to the mystax. The generic name, to be treated as masculine, refers to the region of the amber deposit.”

The ‘mystax’ is a cluster of hairs just above the animal’s mouth. Here’s a picture of the mystax on a modern robber fly Stichopogon albofasciatus, which is found all over Europe and in North Africa. The photo is taken from the delightfully retro

Stichopogon albofasciatus - Mystax - frontal

The Burmapogon bruckschi specimen was found in amber from Burma – this is apparently the first time that robber flies have been found in the scores of thousands of pieces of Burmese amber that contain insects. The reason for that is probably that amber was produced by trees, and Asilidae don’t like wooded areas.

Look at the detail on this left middle leg:













Amazingly, Dikow and Grimaldi found two B. bruckschi flies, a male and a female, in two separate pieces of amber. This is not the oldest robber fly – as Dikow and Grimaldo write: ‘The oldest definitive Asilidae, †Araripogon axelrodi Grimaldi, 1990, was described from limestone of the Crato Formation (Albian, ~112 myo) in Ceará state in northeastern Brazil (Grimaldi, 1990).’

Robber flies (also called assassin flies) are extremely agile predators that can catch and suck the juices out of prey much larger than them. We’ve talked about them here before. This video gives you some idea of their amazing behaviour.

Like everything else in the history of our planet, however, they are sometimes eaten, as this rather shaky video shows…

h/t @BioInFocus

Reference: T. Dikow and D. Grimaldi (2014) Robber flies in Cretaceous ambers (Insecta, Diptera, Asilidae). American Museum novitates, no. 3799. (open access)

David Bentley Hart: Last installment

I’m sure you’re relieved to see the title of this post, as most of you haven’t taken kindly to the quotes I’ve put up from Hart’s new book, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss.  But you don’t seem to realize that I’m doing you a two-fold favor here: not only saving you from having to read the book (and therefore keeping your credibility as Sophisticated Atheists), but also holding up to the harsh light of day the kinds of arguments that pass as The Best Case for God.

So bear with me while I reproduce one last quote. Please do read it, for it’s a long riff on the deepity that “God is love.” It comes from page 276. I’ve made a few comments, highlighted with asterisks and explained at the bottom.

“For none of the great theistic traditions is ‘God’ the name of a god, some emotionally changeable entity who has to deliberate upon his actions, either in respect of standards independent of himself or in respect of some arbitrary psychological impulse within himself. ‘God’ is the name, rather, of that eternal and transcendent principle upon which the gods (if there are such beings)( are dependent for their existence and for their share in all the transcendental perfections of being.  For all the great monotheisms, God is himself the Good, or the Form of the Good, and his freedom consists in his limitless power to express his nature (goodness)* unhindered by the obstacles or limitations suffered by finite beings. He is ‘the love that moves the sun and all the other stars,’ as Dante phrases it, at once the underlying unity and the final end of all things. And the absolute nature of that love is reflected in the unconditional quality of the transcendental or ecstatic desire it excites in rational natures. As Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) says, ‘Love is sufficient in itself, gives pleasure through itself and because of itself. It is its own merit, its own reward. Love looks for no cause outside itself, no effect beyond itself. . . I love because I love. I love so that I may love.** Love is something great insofar as it returns constantly to its fountain head and flows back to its source, from which it ever draws that water that continually replenishes it. . . For when God loves, he desires only to be loved in turn.*** His love’s only purpose is to be loved, as he knows that all who love him are made happy by their love of him.’”


*If God is the ineffable Ground of Being, how does Hart know he’s “good”?
** Classic deepities!
***Throughout the book,Hart denies strongly that God has any anthropomorphic properties. Yet here he clearly agrees with Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) that God not only lovees, but has a desire to be loved. If that’s not anthropomorphism, I’ll eat my boots!

The ninth pitch drop fell

What I’m about to describe is supposedly the world’s longest-running scientific experiment, and, although we already know the result, it gets demonstrated repeatedly: once every decade on average.

In 1927, Professor Thomas Parnell of the University of Queensland set up an experiment to demonstrate that some substances that appear to be solid, like pitch, are really liquids, and flow at an extremely slow rate. At room temperature, for example, pitch is solid, brittle, and can be shattered with a hammer. But Parnell wanted to show that it was really a liquid in the technical sense.

So, in 1927 Parnell heated up some pitch, poured it into a sealed funnel, allowed it to congeal for three years, and then snipped the neck of the funnel. Over the next 86 years (Parnell died 21 years into the experiment), generations watched the pitch slowly drip from the funnel (nobody’s actually seen a drop fall).

Here’s a photo of the setup:

Screen shot 2014-04-22 at 6.57.43 AM

Longtime custodian of the famous experiment, the late Professor John Mainstone. (Photo from the University of Queensland.)

Up until last week, there had been eight drops, but a ninth just fell on April 10. Here’s a time-lapse video taken over the last two years:

Sadly, the fall isn’t so dramatic, as the latest drop simply glopped onto the one below it, still adhering to the funnel. They need to move that funnel higher up!

There’s another description of the experiment at the University of Queenland’s site, which gives a bit more information:

The experiment was set up as a demonstration and is not kept under special environmental conditions (it is actually kept in a display cabinet in the foyer of the Department), so the rate of flow of the pitch varies with seasonal changes in temperature. Nonetheless, it is possible to make an estimate of the viscosity of this sample of pitch (R.Edgeworth, B.J. Dalton and T. Parnell, Eur. J. Phys (1984) 198-200). It turns out to be about 100 billion times more viscous than water! The first picture in the slide show above is of the late Professor John Mainstone, longtime custodian of the experiment. In the 83 years that the pitch has been dripping, no-one has ever seen the drop fall.

The history (from Wikipedia):

Screen shot 2014-04-22 at 6.46.06 AM

By the way, I’m told that very old windows are thicker at the bottom than at the top, supposedly the result of glass itself flowing downward. I have no idea whether this is true.

h/t: Robert

The dangers of quantum theology

Over at his website Evolving Perspectives, reader and cartoonist Pliny the In Between shows one of the pitfalls of theologians’ propensity for finding God in quantum mechanics:

Quantum theology


When good skeptics go bad: Isaac Chotiner interviews Barbara Ehrenreich about her mystical experiences

Barbara Ehrenreich has written 14 books, many of them on the economic difficulties of average Americans or the role of women in history, and I’ve read (and enjoyed) two of them: Nickled and Dimed and (especially) Bright Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America. She’s always seemed to me rational and level-headed, but that was until her latest book came out, Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth About Everything. Judging from her prepublication interviews, and now a personal interview with Isaac Chotiner of The New Republic, it looks as if this is her attempt to become the Thomas Nagel of autobiography: an affirmation that there is Something Out There beyond naturalism.

In a previous post, I described Ehrenreich’s mystical moment that she experienced as a teenager (the subject of a piece she wrote for The New York Times), seeing the whole world suddenly take on a lovely flame-like appearance. Rather than attribute it to the exhaustion and hypoglycemia she had from skiing, she chose to see it as something numinous—a reflection of a higher plane of reality and consciousness. And that’s the theme she’s pursuing in her new book. Its summary on Amazon includes this:

Barbara Ehrenreich is one of the most important thinkers of our time. Educated as a scientist, she is an author, journalist, activist, and advocate for social justice. In LIVING WITH A WILD GOD, she recounts her quest-beginning in childhood-to find “the Truth” about the universe and everything else: What’s really going on? Why are we here? In middle age, she rediscovered the journal she had kept during her tumultuous adolescence, which records an event so strange, so cataclysmic, that she had never, in all the intervening years, written or spoken about it to anyone. It was the kind of event that people call a “mystical experience”-and, to a steadfast atheist and rationalist, nothing less than shattering.

In LIVING WITH A WILD GOD, Ehrenreich reconstructs her childhood mission, bringing an older woman’s wry and erudite perspective to a young girl’s impassioned obsession with the questions that, at one point or another, torment us all. The result is both deeply personal and cosmically sweeping-a searing memoir and a profound reflection on science, religion, and the human condition. . . .

It sounds bizarre, as did her NYT piece, and my suspicions that all is not well are reinforced by yesterday’s interview of Ehrenreich by Isaac Chotiner, “Barbara Ehrenrich: I’m an atheist, but don’t rule out ‘mystical experiences’.” Go read it: it’s short, very strange, and, at times, almost incoherent on Ehrenreich’s part. The strange thing is that, as an atheist, she is absolutely sure that there is no God, yet at the same time she’s convinced that her personal experience with the numinous points not to some glitch in her brain (as she thinks the religious have), but to something real about the universe beyond the ken of science. A brief excerpt will suffice:

IC: It’s interesting that you call yourself an atheist rather than an agnostic.

BE: I am insistent on atheist. If we are talking about a monotheistic, benevolent God, I know there is no such thing.

IC: How do you know that there is no benevolent God when you think there might be spirits talking to me?

BE: It depends on what I have experienced. I have many areas of experience which show there is no giant benevolent force.

IC: But some people claim to experience a monotheistic God.

BE: That is not my experience.

IC: But we don’t make these grand judgments based on our own experience. [Pause] Do we?

BE: Yeah.

IC: We do?

BE: To an extent. Where is the evidence for a benevolent God?

IC: I agree with you. But there isn’t evidence for spiritual figures in the room either.

BE: Well, we need to find out.

Granted, this was a phone interview, and perhaps Ehrenreich wasn’t at her most eloquent. Nevertheless, the fact that she’d write a book on this—one that reminds me a bit of Marilynne Robinson’s strange antimaterialistic and pro-religious Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self is just weird. I don’t know what to make of it, but if anyone reads it, send a report.


Oh, and one more thing. If Ehrenreich is an atheist, why does she sneak the word “God” into the title? I suppose that that, combined with an atheist’s claim for the transcendent, will help the book sell briskly.

Spring footwear

When you’re teaching, having the proper footwear gives you that extra soupçon of authority. Here’s a fine pair of boots from Rodney Ammons of El Paso. Guess the hide: need the proper species, with the right Latin binomial:



Tuesday: Hili dialogue

Hili: I wasn’t doing badly and now I have it better still.
A: And what is your conclusion about it?
Hili: That hedonism still has great potential.


In Polish:
Hili: Nie było mi źle, a teraz jest mi jeszcze lepiej.
Ja: I jaki z tego wniosek?
Hili: Że hedonizm ma duże możliwości rozwojowe.

The Big Nap

This is from Bern Morley’s Tw**er feed, labeled “Ominous sub-editing of the day”:


Too right!

h/t: Grania


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 25,698 other followers