Readers’ wildlife photos

Surprise! More birds today. (Where are you insect folks?)

Reader Mal Morrison from Devon sent pictures of  Common Swifts and some information:

For some time I’ve been trying to get some decent photos of Swifts (Apus apus) in flight. This is partly because I find them fascinating but mainly because capturing images present a real challenge. There are difficulties because of their speed and erratic flight and also with exposing a dark bird against a bright sky. These were taken just outside my home in Plymouth, Devon. While the birds are quite often high on the wing, they occasionally return to their nesting area and fly at low level over the rooftops and trees. Whether they do this just to check out ‘home’ or maybe for orientation I have no idea but they were doing this when these were taken. Swifts eat, mate and sleep in the air. (According to this site, they can sleep/fly as high as 10000 feet!)


Mal added this:

These were taken with a Canon EOS 5D Mk 3 camera using the 100-400mm lens with an exposure of 2000th of a second.


And what is a set of bird photos without one by Stephen Barnard from Idaho?  This one came in an email titled “Swainson’s Hawk starting a dive for prey.”

Swainson's hawk starting dive

Swainson’s Hawk (Buteo swainsoni) is found in the western U.S. and Canada and overwinters in southeastern South America. Here’s its range from the Cornell Ornithology site:


Tuesday: Hili dialogue

Is true!

A: Hili, what are you doing?
Hili: Jerry and I are overcoming Jerry’s jet lag.


In Polish:

Ja: Hili, co ty robisz?
Hili: Przezwyciężamy jet lag Jerrego.

Ten cats but one less person

The “Ten Cats” comic strip  written by Graham Harrop is well worth following, for it describes the adventures of Annie and ten cats who all live in a warehouse.  Apparently Linda, one of the strip’s regular commenters, passed away, and Harrop provided a touching tribute:


p.s. Please don’t tell me that it’s one “fewer” person; Pinker dispels a lot of the “less/fewer” pedantry in his upcoming book on how to write, The Sense of Style.

h/t: jsp, Diane G.

Philosopher John Gray denigrates reason and promotes religion on the BBC

John N. Gray (b. 1948) is an English political philosopher  who is an emeritus professor at the London School of Economics.  According to Wikipedia, he “contributes regularly to The GuardianThe Times Literary Supplementand the New Statesman, where he is the lead book reviewer.”

For a philosopher, Gray shows a curious tendency to denigrate reason and praise faith. We’ve met him before on this website (here and here), and in both cases he pointed out the limitations of science and argued that religion is a way of knowing that yields truths inaccessible to science.

We’re used to that view from faitheists and believers, but not from secular philosophers. It’s doubly curious because, in the article I’ll discuss today, Gray avers that he’s an atheist. (He’s also espoused another atheist-bashing trope: the notion that atheists are deficient because we don’t hold “the tragic view of life” taken by Nietzsche, whom Gray called “the pivotal modern critic of religion,” one who “will continue to be the ghost at the atheist feast.”)

Here’s some of Gray’s religion-osculation and science-bashing from a 2011 BBC piece, “A point of view: can religion tell us more than science“:

Unbelievers in religion who think science can save the world are possessed by a fantasy that’s far more childish than any myth. The idea that humans will rise from the dead may be incredible, but no more so than the notion that “humanity” can use science to remake the world.

. . . Myths aren’t relics of childish thinking that humanity leaves behind as it marches towards a more grown-up view of things. They’re stories that tell us something about ourselves that can’t be captured in scientific theories.

Just as you don’t have to believe that a scientific theory is true in order to use it, you don’t have to believe a story for it to give meaning to your life.

Myths can’t be verified or falsified in the way theories can be. But they can be more or less truthful to human experience, and I’ve no doubt that some of the ancient myths we inherit from religion are far more truthful than the stories the modern world tells about itself.

By all means, Dr. Gray, let us hear some of the ancient myths that are more truthful than what modern science accepts. By truths, he means “truths about human experience,” some of which can indeed be verified empirically (i.e., “I got depressed when I was diagnosed with cancer:). But as is usual with critics of “scientism,” Gray neglects to mention any of these truths. He just bashes science, perhaps because he resents its advances. What one cannot doubt, unless one is completely blinkered with faith, is that science has saved the world far more than any myth. Two examples: antibiotics and the Green Revolution.

What is is about atheists that makes them so ready to criticize other atheists rather than the religious, whose beliefs they not only find wrong, but sometimes admit are harmful? What comparable harms does atheism do? This kind of atheist-bashing fascinates me; after all, we all disbelieve in the same God!

I suppose the atheist-bashing of arrogant pundits like Gray derives from their claim that we’re disbelieving for the wrong reasons. But I suggest that “not enough evidence” is a reason that’s perfectly sufficient. As for the “value of myth” in helping humanity, I’d like to see some examples. As an atheist who nevertheless promotes religious belief, Gray is simply advancing the condescending Little People Argument. If we need myth, how about simple but clearly fictional stories that espouse racial and sexual equality and note the horrible consequences of prejudice. Why do we need to accrete those stories around scripture that is not only claimed to be true, but has a lot of bad side effects? Why the Bible instead of, say, Maus(Actually, Maus is a graphic novel—a very wonderful one—based on real events.)

At any rate, Gray continues his attacks in another piece in BBC Magazine published 3 days ago: “The child-like faith in reason.” What a strange title for a philosopher to use! And the piece is every bit as critical of reason as Gray’s religious predecessors, like Martin Luther:

I don’t know how many times I’ve heard religion being described as childish. It’s one of those uncritically accepted ideas – perhaps I should say memes – that have been floating around for generations. Even many religious people seem to accept that there’s something at least child-like about their faith. Believing in God, they sometimes say, is a bond between human beings and an infinitely wiser power – we should trust in God just as we would a loving parent. When they hear this, our evangelical atheists feel vindicated in their crusade. In their view, nothing could be more childish than a relationship in which human beings are utterly dependent on a supernatural power. For these atheists, putting your trust in such an imaginary being is the essence of childishness.

Oh, Lord, there’s the “evangelical atheists” again, by which Gray really means “passionate and outspoken atheists.” He’s just saying that to slip the “evangelical” word in, as if somehow outspoken atheism was a religion. By those lights, I suppose we could call Gray an “evangelical philosopher.”

Gray continues, and I have bolded a very striking (and completely idiotic) statement:

Speaking as an atheist myself, I can’t help smiling when I hear religion being mocked in this way. Looking at the world as it has been and continues to be at the present time, it’s belief in human reason that’s childish. Religious faith is based on accepting that we know very little of God. But we know a great deal about human beings, and one of the things we know for sure is that we’re not rational animals. Believing in the power of human reason requires a greater leap of faith than believing in God.

Such a statement borders on insanity. For we have ample demonstration that using reason has told us truths about the universe. How do we know? Because reason works. If you want to cure infectious diseases, you do it by reason: making hypotheses, doing tests of whether diseases are caused by transmitted microorganisms, devising antibiotics or antivirals, testing them scientifically, and so on. It is through reason that we’ve found everything we know about the universe. If reason was as fallacious as Gray avows, the material human condition, as well as our ability to predict eclipses and send men to the Moon, wouldn’t have improved.

In contrast, believing in God hasn’t told us one thing about the universe, including whether said god exists, whether there is more than one god, what said god wants us to do, whether there’s an afterlife, and so on. Religion, in other words, simply makes stuff up and has no way to determine whether what it makes up bears any correspondence to reality. Why on earth, then, would you trust revelation and dogma more than reason? You wouldn’t trust revelation and dogma to fix your car, cure your disease, or purify your water. Why would you trust your entire life, now and hereafter, to it? There is no “leap of faith” involved in believing in reason.  We don’t have “faith” in reason, we use reason, as does Gray in his article. And we use it because it gives us results.  The true leap of faith is believing in supernatural beings and the dictates of religions.

In fact, in his whole article Gray says nothing in favor of reason, which he sees as hopelessly inadequate for solving human problems. Humans, he says, are not reasoning animals, for we have an annoying propensity to believe in the palpably untrue:

If human beings were potentially capable of applying reason in their lives they would show some sign of learning from what they had done wrong in the past, but history and everyday practice show them committing the same follies over and over again. They would alter their beliefs in accordance with facts, but clinging to beliefs in the face of contrary evidence is one of the most powerful and enduring human traits.

Umm. . . we no longer believe that disease or drought are signs of God’s displeasure (Rick Perry excepted), nor mental illness a sign of affliction by demons. We have used reason to show that lightning has physical causes rather than divine anger. Most of us use reason in our jobs, and we’d be unemployed if we didn’t. Why doesn’t Gray realize that?

Really, one would have to be blind to claim that every rejection of reason of humanity’s ancient days remains with us, and has kept us from advancing, both scientifically and morally. Morally because, as Steve Pinker showed in The Better Angels of Our Nature, it is reason that has led to the decline of violence on Earth, as well as other salubrious (and probably inexorable) changes in attitudes. For what is it but reason that has led us to recognize that heterosexual adult white European males hold no special moral privilege over gays, people of other ethnicities, or women? Or that children should be not be worked to death and animals mistreated? Those advances did not come from religion, although some churches promoted more liberal attitudes. Had equality been inherent in Christianity (or Judaism or Islam) from the outset, and had scripture been a myth that promoted good behavior, most of those improvements in morality would have taken place by the Middle Ages, not in the last two centuries.

Nevertheless, Gray sees religion as some kind of palliative to human problems (my emphasis):

Outside of some areas of science, human beings rarely give up their convictions just because they can be shown to be false. No doubt we can become a little more reasonable, at least for a time, in some parts of our lives, but being reasonable means accepting that many human problems aren’t actually soluble, and our persistent irrationality is one of these problems. At its best, religion is an antidote against the prevailing type of credulity – in our day, a naive faith in the boundless capacities of the human mind.

The belief in reason that is being promoted today rests on a number of childishly simple ideas. One of the commonest is that history’s crimes are mistakes that can be avoided in future as we acquire greater knowledge. But human evil isn’t a type of error that can be discarded like an obsolete scientific theory. If history teaches us anything it’s that hatred and cruelty are permanent human flaws, which find expression whatever beliefs people may profess.

Note that he says, “at its best”.  Really, though, which religions are “at their best”?  Which ones have been antidotes against the “prevailing credulity” of faith in the “capacities of the human mind”? Gray is triply wrong here. First, even the “best” religions expand the credulity of the human mind by asking us to believe the unbelievable: prophets flying to heaven on horses, saviors coming back to life after being crucified, or the existence of an afterlife in which we get either wings or fire. Are those things not conceived in the human mind and a product of irrationality—religion? Nor, as we know, are these beliefs always salubrious, even if they’re wrong.

Further, it is precisely our faith in reason that has improved humanity. How much has theology, or religion itself, improved the human lot (especially compared to science) over the last 400 years?

Finally, Gray is wrong that humans cannot become markedly better. Yes, cruelty and avarice will always be with us, partly because some of that was instilled in us by evolution. But, as Pinker showed, we’re capable of using our reason to overcome these tendencies.  I would maintain that the average person, at least in the West  (the area I know most about) is markedly more empathic now than, say, three hundred years ago.  Do we laugh at cats being tortured, as they did in medieval France? Do we not care about children laboring in coal mines, something that was acceptable  in England not all that long ago? Do we not recognize that women have moral and political equality, something laughed at only a few centuries ago? Do remember that it was only in in the 1970s that women in Switzerland got the right to vote! And they still can’t drive in Saudi Arabia—all because of the wondrous power of myth.

Gray, then, is simply wrong when he says this:

If human beings were potentially capable of applying reason in their lives they would show some sign of learning from what they had done wrong in the past, but history and everyday practice show them committing the same follies over and over again. They would alter their beliefs in accordance with facts, but clinging to beliefs in the face of contrary evidence is one of the most powerful and enduring human traits.

Oh really? Yes, we still have wars, but, as I said, we are on a moral arc that makes us significantly more empathic than our ancestors. Does that come from reason or from religion? (Indeed, science can potentially feed into this kind of reason, for it can show us, for instance, that a society that treats women or minorites as equals is a better society in which to live than one sanctioning inequality.) And science itself is a product of learning: the discovery that using reason observation gives us useful truths about the universe. Does Gray really think that the adoption of science instead of superstition doesn’t represent any kind of “learning from what we’d done wrong in the past”?

And, in the end, Gray can’t help but get in the obligatory licks against science:

In Europe before and during World War Two, persecution and genocide were supported by racial and eugenic theories, which allowed some groups to be demonised. These theories were pseudo-science of the worst kind, but it wasn’t this that discredited them. They were exposed for what they were by the defeat of Nazism, which revealed the horrors to which they had led. Subsequent investigation has since demonstrated that such theories are scientifically worthless. But the habit of demonising other human beings hasn’t gone away. The same minorities that were targeted in the past – Jews, Roma, immigrants and gay people, for example – are being targeted in many countries today.

Racism and eugenics did not come from science and reason, but simply used science to prop up the endemic unreason and xenophobia that Gray already indicted our species for. “Pseudo-science” is correct, for those “theories” didn’t rest on real science: the kind supported by reason and empirical investigation.  The extermination of the Jews, for instance, rested purely on religiously-based prejudice. Chalk up another good effect of “myth” that is “true to human experience.”

Frankly, if I didn’t know Gray was a serious philosopher, I’d think that this piece was meant as a joke, or a Sokal-style hoax. Really, a philosopher writing repeatedly that reason is overrated? (Why the BBC would publish a piece denigrating reason is beyond my ken.)

But he’s not joking, for he’s been cranking out this kind of stuff for years. No, the man is simply doing bad philosophy—if you can call that philosophy. (I’d call it an academic version of The Daily Mail.) The reasons for this bad philosophy, and for the denigration of the very values that underlie Gray’s discipline, are beyond me; they lie deep in the murky waters of psychology and upbringing. And I’m surprised that the BBC would publish this sort of stuff. Do they consider this a deeply thoughtful piece? Maybe I’m wrong, but it’s my impression that the quality of British journalism has declined steeply in the last few decades.

And if you don’t believe that Gray’s article is totally worthless, consider this: his essay uses reason to try to convince people that reason doesn’t work well for convincing people!

h/t: Michael

A cherry Sunday in Dobrzyn

I’ll try to post each day about the previous day’s activities here. Note, though, that “activities” consist largely of working and eating, with occasional walkies. That routine is now established in Dobrzyn, although a new element (the cherry harvest) began at 7 a.m. today (Monday; photos tomorrow). My book is undergoing editorial review, so I have a break, but of course it is filled with other work, including writing a science paper and reading a Ph.D. thesis.

But first, of course, it was necessary to reacquaint myself with Her Highness, as well as meet the new d*g.  First, the princess asleep in the bathroom (Click pictures to enlarge). Her rear paws need cleaning, but she took care of that later.


Cyrus is absolutely infatuated with Hili; he follows her around and stares at her constantly.  One would think she’d be creeped out by this behavior, but she doesn’t seem to mind. Perhaps, though, we should establish some sexual harassment rules!

Hili and Cyrus lick

After lunch, a walk was in order. Both animals went with us to the river:




Can you spot the cat?

Spot the cat

These trees are heavily laden with cherries, but they’re the exception this year. Nevertheless, there are well over 15 thousand kilos in the orchard. These are, of course, “sour” cherries, though they were quite pleasant to eat right off the tree.


We picked enough to make about 10 jars of jam: it takes about 1 kilo of cherries per jar:

Malgorzata picking

I tried my hand, though I was not as fast as the others (they have 16 years of experience!) I also plead exhaustion. Nevertheless, I did pick 3 kilos, one by one:

AC picking

9 kilos for jam:

9 kg

They all had to be pitted, which is quite efficient using these inexpensive cherry-pitters. Nevertheless, it took us an hour and I was covered with cherry juice at the end:


I helped, and oy, was it messy! Cherry juice flying everywhere, and some recalcitrant cherries that wouldn’t go through the pitter (photo by Andrzej):


The jam (pitted cherries + sugar) was cooked  in a large copper kettle for several hours last night. It was then left to rest, and is cooking again at this moment. It will be done later today. At the upper left you can see one of the cans of gourmet cat food that I brought Hili as a present.


A team of pickers arrived this morning, so tomorrow we’ll see how the pros do it. And. . . another cherry pie will be made today!

Readers’ wildlife photographs

Reader Stephen Barnard  from Idaho sent three photos of the common nighthawk (Chordeiles minor). As he pointed out to me, they’re closely related to the nightjar (they are both in the family Caprimulgidae), but they are much easier to spot. See?


Where are its feet? As Wikipedia notes:

Nighthawks have small feet, of little use for walking, and long pointed wings. Their soft plumage is cryptically coloured to resemble bark or leaves. Some species perch facing along a branch, rather than across it as birds usually do. This helps to conceal them during the day. The female lays two patterned eggs directly onto bare ground.

They are mostly active in the late evening and early morning or at night and feed on moths and other large flying insects. The bill opens very wide and has a slightly hooked upper tip.

Nighthawks are similar in most respects to the nightjars, but have shorter bills and plumage that is less soft. Nighthawks are less strictly nocturnal than many nightjars and may be seen hunting when there is still light in the sky.



A further note on its flight:

The flight of the Common Nighthawk is erratic and jerky, as it attempts to prey on various flying insects. Its call is a short, harsh, buzzy sound. The white bands on its underwings are easily seen as it flies in the evening, at an altitude that is often well above the treetops. Also of note is nighthawks’ mating ritual. Males will gain considerable altitude, then perform a power dive; as they pull up from the dive, the wings make a sudden, low sound that is called “booming”.

To see this flight, as well as to appreciate how hard it must have been to take these photos, here’s a video of its hunting:

And to hear its calls, go here. That site doesn’t have the “booming” call, but you can hear that here.


Monday: Hili dialogue

Haggard after a long trip (which is why I look so dreadful), I greet the Furry Navel of the World. And, yes, I brought her presents. . .

Jerry: I’ve been missing you.
Hili: Me too, I hope you have some presents for me.

10470811_10203857110055486_772799471146090773_nIn Polish:

Jerry: Tęskniłem za tobą.
Hili: Ja też, mam nadzieję, że masz jakieś prezenty dla mnie.


McLeroy replies about the crucifixion

Okay, for a one-time bonus, I have allowed creationist and Biblical literalist  Don McLeroy to answer your questions about the supposed 500 witnesses to the Crucifixion, and I’ve asked him to respond to all of the readers’ serious questions.  He has begun to do so. But this is your chance to question a true believer about his beliefs (stick to the Crucifixion claim), so ask questions in the comments to the previous post. [UPDATE: readers appear to be violating this en masses, so, go ahead and respond here. McLeroy did

Be polite, but of course you can also be firm.

McLeroy has his own website, where he’s simply reposting my posts, something I don’t like. It also has the usual creationist blather.

Well, I tried to divert your questions to  McLeroy to the earlier post, but it looks as if he’s monitoring both, so go ahead and leave questions or comments right below this one.

In the meantime, here’s one of his “responses” I’ve allowed on this site site:

Dr. Coyne: Thanks for the opportunity.

It is not unreasonable to accept the the scriptures as authoritative; I have some amazing company. For example from my desk top library at this moment, you could read Peter Kreeft, Norman Geisler, Frank Turek, Lee Strobel, James Hannam, Moyshe Averick, Rodney Stark, Ravi Zacarias,G. K Chesterton, Paul Johnson, Abraham Kuyper, C. S. Lewis, David Brog, and from my bookshelves many more. These are serious thinkers who have thought deeply about the Bible and for most a lot about the resurrection.

After 29 years of studying the Bible,I am now totally convinced that the Bible and Christianity are true. Are there still intellectual and rational difficulties to my faith? Yes. But, I have come to see that all people have rational problems with what they believe. Even the most dogged atheist is left with “something from nothing.” That certainly is not rational. For me, Christianity brings everything together, in thought, in science, in history, and in life. (From my testimony see: “How I became a Christian.”)

As you are amazed at me and how I could hold what to you understand are wildly unreasonable ideas, I am amazed at how you (evolutionists and atheists) can do likewise. This week,I have just posted my analysis of the weakness of Kenneth Miller and Joseph Levines’s explanation for the evolutionary origin of the ribosome. Check it out and please show me where the analysis fails or send links to more evidence.

Also, check out the blog post on Neil deGrasse Tyson and Anne Druyan’s opening episode of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, nd their definition of science and show me where I am wrong.

The Resurection

Peter Kreeft in his “Handbook of Christian Apologetics” (176-198)states that there are five possible theories about what happened that first Easter morning: Christianity, hallucination, myth, conspiracy and swoon. He then presents 9 refutations for the swoon theory, 7 for the conspiracy theory, 13 for the hallucination theory and 6 for the myth theory.

He then deals with 5 other general objections.

His reasoning is sound and convincing and he is just one among many others. I suggest someone who is really curious, check out his book.

Again, thank you. It is a privilege to be able to join your discussions.

Remember these roolz for this discussion:

1. Stay away from arguing with McLeroy about evolution. There’s nothing to be gained by that.

2. You’re not going to change the man’s mind about either Jesus or evolution. So ask him questions if you wish, but if you think you’ll change his mind—or even make him question his belief slightly—you’re deluded.

Why does putting up this most make me feel like I’m throwing a bone to a pack of hungry dogs? But the bone is indestructible!

The Jesus Delusion

Don McLeroy, former head of the Texas State Board of Education and a regular member for several years during The Great Texas Textbook Wars, added his own comment (he’s moderated) to the post “Catholic biologist Ken Miller talks about God and evolution”. This is what appeared on my dashboard.

Screen shot 2014-07-20 at 1.57.43 PM
McLeroy, as many of you know, is a creationist dentist who, for a while, exercised enormous power over what Texas schoolchildren could learn about evolution. He was eventually heaved out of office, but can you imagine somebody putting this kind of trust in the gospels having any control over public education?

Feel free to ask him about those 500 witnesses. Maybe I’ll let him reply.


Beware of the cat

Here’s a funny sign put up before a party and then posted on Twi**er:

Screen Shot 2014-07-13 at 12.43.51 AM

Actually, most cats fit that description: narcissistic, sybaritic, affectionate only when they get something out of it, like fusses or food. Why, then, do we love them so?

h/t: Barry


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 27,066 other followers