About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Noah's ark found! Yeah, right

Most people by now have heard of the “discovery” of Noah's ark by B.A.S.E. (Bible Archeology Search and Exploration), a Christian group from Texas who allegedly found the remains of the mythical vessel while tramping around the Iranian mountains northwest of Tehran (how on earth did a Christian archeology group get permits from the Islamic government anyhow?).

Of course, as BASE officials admit, there is actually no way to find out whether whatever they have uncovered has anything to do with the Biblical story. Indeed, according to the “good book” the ark was made of “gopher wood,” a substance unknown to human science, and hence rather difficult to positively identify (the artifact found by BASE “looked similar to wood” -- maybe it's vinyl siding recycled from a nearby house).

According the members of the expedition, when they spotted the object they “didn't dare to hope” it was Noah's, a rather strange reaction considering that the whole point of the trip was to find precisely that Biblical artifact. But then again I never understood the fundamentalist Christian concept of “hope” anyway.

More to the point, Bruce Feiler, author of "Where God Was Born" said that "there's this idea, if we can prove that the Ark existed then we can prove that the story existed, and more importantly, we can prove that God existed." Except, of course, that this is a beautiful example of logical fallacy. Let's see, this would be like claiming that if we found the Colosseum (which we did, I saw it a few months ago), then the Roman mythological story that the city was established by the sons of the god Mars would be spectacularly confirmed. You see the problem, I hope.

Even better, suppose the analyses of the artifact currently being carried out “at [unspecified] labs in Texas and Florida” (again, do they have the necessary permits from the Iranian government, or did they steal in the name of the Lord?) conclusively show that the object is made of standard, not gopher, wood. Would that imply that God doesn't exist? Of course not, but I suppose double logical standards have always been a staple of religious “thinking.”


  1. I'd also question climing 13,000' in 7 hours. Perhaps "to" 13,000' is possible. I am a strong hiker and I know hikers much stronger than me. 4,000' is considered a very strong day. 10,000' is considered phenomonal - I know of only a few who have done that much and fewer still who could do it in 7 hours. And none of these people did it while carrying full packs. I would consider 13,000 in 7 hours to be the province of extremely fit mountaineers - an unlikely skill for the B.A.S.E. team.

  2. How many "discovered" Noah's arks does this make now? It seems like we get treated to a new one every couple of years or so. How much do you want to bet that this latest "find" ends up as a for-profit sideshow?

  3. I think the flood story has the dubious honor of being the first Bible myth I rejected on the grounds of likelihood as a child. Right after the tooth fairy.

  4. maybe it's vinyl siding recycled from a nearby house

    I guess you mean Texas as "nearby". I mean, I've never been to Iran, but I just can't picture vinyl-sided houses there... :-)


  5. Vinyl-covered sidings? Isn't that a garden shed? :D

  6. If one believes in a "God" does that make them less of a person? Can one believe that "God" and the bible/bibles were created to help explain the world's events to those that did not have the educational benefits we have today? Why cant we all just get along? Do you allow your children to believe in fairytales, Santa Claus and the tooth fairy? Prehaps I am just not educated enough to understand the ramifications of allowing people to believe what they want.

  7. While people *should* be allowed to believe whatever they want, the danger is when they act on these beliefs in a manner that is harmful to others.

    The classic and still relevant example is a belief that God exists, supports your country, and wants you to wipe out opposition to the One True Way.

  8. chi:
    Beliefs shape actions, and the best actions are based upon accurate knowledge.
    When an Islamic fundamentalist staps a bomb to his chest and blows up innocent people, it is because he *believes* he will be rewarded as a maytr in heaven with a beavy of virgin hotties.
    A terrorist's whole frame of reference is modified by illogical beliefs, so that he views the world through a 'filter of ignorance'.
    Children's fables are for children; if I knew an adult who still believed in Santa Claus, I'd be justified in correcting him -- as his friends would get annoyed after many years of no Christmas gifts. :)
    People can't get along for various reasons, and I wouldn't want to pin it all on religious faith, but clearly a problem is created when two groups of people hold two opposing illogical beliefs, which by their very nature resist logical alteration. For example, the Palestine-Isreali conflict.

  9. Let me see, just what ARE some of the ramifications of letting people believe what they want to?

    Children dying of childhood diseases because their parents believe that prayer is all that is required for healing.

    Racial lynchings because certain white folk believe that the bible is, presumbably, quite clear about keeping black folk "in their place."

    Suicide bombers killing innocents because they believe that they'll go to heaven and be rewarded with lots of virgins.

    It's not that all religious belief is bad--but the willingess to accept and cling to irrational beliefs at all is indeed inherently bad. Anything can be (and is) justified with such belief. Anything.

  10. ok..definitely get the point about radical religious groups who "rationalize" killing for the "greater good" ---- I agree completely. However, many of the world's major religions that I have read about basically have some really good values. Thou shall not kill, comes to mind. There were no clauses to this statement. It was not written, thou shall not kill unless they dont believe in "God" or dont live the way you think they should. I used to work at a very large bank with people from many different ethnic and religious backgrounds. Thru frequent and heated discussions we all became very aware that no matter whom or what we believed in, we all had the same "moral" humanistic (?) values. I guess what I was trying to say is that no one should put themselves above the other regardless of how much "evidence" there is to back your opinion. By doing so you teeter on the same line as those "radical" religous groups ------- righteousness and arogance is as dangerous for scientists and humanist as it is for radical religious groups.

  11. I used to work at a very large bank with people from many different ethnic and religious backgrounds. Thru frequent and heated discussions we all became very aware that no matter whom or what we believed in, we all had the same "moral" humanistic (?) values.

    So were any of these people from different backgrounds humanists?

  12. There's also a problem with people believing what they want to when what they want to believe results in their ignoring facts, twisting science, and basically trying to force schools to follow suit. If Noah's Ark is a true story then virtually everything we know to be true about ... well, virtually everything would have to be false: a worldwide flood that only one little group of people noticed, all the people and animals in the world destroyed, a god who decides to wipe out humanity because they're pretty much as he made them (even he comes to that conclusion afterwards and decides not to bother doing it again): the only way that can be true is if we just decide that every fact we have about the way the world works is a lie (presumably told us by god?).

    People who believe the Flood is an allegory of some sort, punishment or whatever, are one thing. People who insist it's true - like YEC - are another.

  13. >> So were any of these people from different backgrounds humanists? <<

    An idea explored by both philosophers and evolutionary biologists (as well as social scientists who use game theory models) is that moral rules evolved in human societies because humans are social animals, whose main environment is other humans. Simpler versions of moral rules can be found, for example, in the pygmy chimpanzee (bonobos), one of our closest relatives.

  14. "Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity." (Humanist Manifesto III) Yes several were humanist by this definition. I might also add that several paragraphs from this manifesto could have been directly taken from the I Ching (Book of Changes) ancient Chinese Philosophy directly related to Taoism. Religion or philosophy?

    Can some be a humanist and still enjoy and appreciate a good story that has a moral and a god?

  15. >> Can some be a humanist and still enjoy and appreciate a good story that has a moral and a god? <<

    Sure, as science fiction. I enjoyed The Lord of the Rings just fine.

  16. Of course one can be a humanist and enjoy a story with a moral and a god, just as one can enjoy a story with ghosts without believing in them, or pyschics without believing in them... I enjoy Pratchett's Discworld series immensely but I don't believe there's a world that sits on the back of a giant turtle flying through space...

    The key is knowing it's a story.

  17. "I refuse to prove that I exist," says God, "for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing."
    "But," says Man, "the Babel fish is a dead giveaway isn't it? It could not have evolved by chance. It proves that you exist, and so therefore, by your own arguments, you don't. Q.E.D."
    "Oh dear," says God, "I hadn't thought of that," and promptly vanishes in a puff of logic.

  18. For the sake of the debate, lets say that they found a REALLY, REALLY big boat. It is imbossible to take all species two by two. Lets look at some numbers of KNOWN species.
    287,655 plants
    1.5 million fungi
    10,000 lichens
    1,190,200 invertebrates
    58,808 vertebrates
    5-10 million bacteria
    1.5 million

    Grand total = 8,046,663 (low estimate)
    Two by two = 16,093,326

    Must have been a really huge boat equipped with a modern lab to house the bacteria and fungi....
    Please, lets not loose our sense of reality!


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