William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

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Bread From Something Or Nothing? Or, What’s A Miracle?


We interrupt our tour of Summa Contra Gentiles for this brief message.

You’ve heard of the miracle of loaves and fishes? What’s a miracle? How do miracles happen? Read these for a refresher:

A man came from Baal-shalishah bringing the man of God twenty barley loaves made from the first fruits, and fresh grain in the ear. Elisha said, “Give it to the people to eat.”

But his servant objected, “How can I set this before a hundred?” Elisha again said, “Give it to the people to eat, for thus says the LORD: You will eat and have some left over.”

He set it before them, and when they had eaten, they had some left over, according to the word of the LORD.

After this, Jesus went across the Sea of Galilee. A large crowd followed him, because they saw the signs he was performing on the sick. Jesus went up on the mountain, and there he sat down with his disciples. The Jewish feast of Passover was near. When Jesus raised his eyes and saw that a large crowd was coming to him, he said to Philip, “Where can we buy enough food for them to eat?”

He said this to test him, because he himself knew what he was going to do.

Philip answered him, “Two hundred days’ wages worth of food would not be enough for each of them to have a little.”

One of his disciples, Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish; but what good are these for so many?”

Jesus said, “Have the people recline.” Now there was a great deal of grass in that place. So the men reclined, about five thousand in number. Then Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed them to those who were reclining, and also as much of the fish as they wanted. When they had had their fill, he said to his disciples, “Gather the fragments left over, so that nothing will be wasted.”

So they collected them, and filled twelve wicker baskets with fragments from the five barley loaves that had been more than they could eat.

When the people saw the sign he had done, they said, “This is truly the Prophet, the one who is to come into the world.” Since Jesus knew that they were going to come and carry him off to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain alone.

So I’m visiting a church and the deacon (I think) mounted the high ambo to give the homily. “Today’s reading is all about food,” he said. He mentioned “foodies” and food television and celebrity chefs. “Imagine you were one of the characters in the story,” he offered. “Imagine you were one of the loaves and fishes waiting to be handed out.”

It was at that point that I stopped listening and started thinking about what the passages—for these are the readings today—really meant.

Let’s accept the reported events occurred. How could they? God cannot do the impossible. He can’t, for instance, make himself not exist. That means if miracles like this are going to happen, there are only one of two ways that I see.

Now we know that matter and energy are related; E = mc2 and all that. So the first way would be to take existing equivalent masses or energies and convert them to the desired form—and in the require short time. So, rocks or grassy fields or whatever (mass or energy from elsewhere in the universe would have to be transported, and that requires even more work) are rearranged, via some mechanism, into sufficient bread or bread and fish to feed a multitude. Given what we know about nuclear physics, that would require a magnificent amount of energy. Think of the apparatus required to manipulate just one atom. Here were talking many.

How many? A good spherical cow problem. Should be able to get within an order of magnitude or two the mass involved, and thus a rough count of subatomic particles, and thus some idea of how to rearrange what’s on hand and what that would cost in terms on energy. Since I’m writing this right now this morning and in a hurry, I’ll leave this as a homework problem. The answer will be incomprehensibly beyond any human capacity.

The second way would be to create the masses (of bread or fish) ex nihilo. That requires infinite energy. Nothing is no thing, not some thing. Energy is something, and so is existing mass. So creating from nothing obviously requires Omnipotence. Nothing else could do it.

Point is, given that these events happened, if they happened by manipulating existing mass and energy, it would require something very like magic (but not). Like God. And if the masses were created from nothing, only God could do it.

Now there are other instances of creation ex nihilo and no reports of missing mass or flashing lights or anything like that. And there is nothing we know that would allow nuclear reactions to occur this quickly. This is circumstantial evidence, of course, but it does hint toward ex nihilo. And God. Of course, even rearranging mass points toward God.

And that’s what these passages are really about.

Since I wrote this as a replacement post and, as I said, in a hurry, I may update it as the day goes along.

This Week In Doom: Crunchy Yummy Babies And A New Circle Of Hell

At a Planned Parenthood auction.

At a Planned Parenthood auction.

There’s not much to enjoy about this week’s doom, except to note that things are speeding up. Perhaps we need a pseudo-quantified measure of our acceleration into the abyss?

Crunchy Yummy

From the Center for Inquiry’s (the group that used to be CSICOP) Cause & Effect Friday email:

Fighting Back Against the Scheme to Take Down Planned Parenthood

The religious right, in its zeal to take away women’s rights to make their own reproductive decisions, has long sought to bring about the end of Planned Parenthood, a vital organization that provides a wide variety of necessary health services, including HIV and cancer screenings, to millions of women. The latest manifestation of this campaign took the form of heavily doctored “undercover” videos that falsely purported to implicate Planned Parenthood in the selling of fetal body parts for profit. These deceptively edited videos have given religious right allies in Congress the fodder they seek to strike a potentially fatal blow to Planned Parenthood, with threats of legislation that would end all federal funding to this important organization.

As skeptics who believe in the importance of facts, we want to help make it clear that these video “stings” are ideological propaganda, and their claims have no basis in reality. Fetal tissue, freely donated to medical research by fully informed patients, has long provided incredible possibilities for discovering treatments for some of the cruelest diseases that afflict human beings, such as Parkinson’s. Under current law, such tissue cannot be sold, but “reasonable payments associated with the transportation, implantation, processing, preservation, quality control, or storage” can be made. That was all these deceptive videos showed. The New York Times editorialized this week, “Lawmakers responding by promoting their own anti-choice agenda are rewarding deception and putting women’s health and their constitutionally protected rights at risk.”

Let’s not let this underhanded scheme undo a great organization that provides such crucial health services to so many women. Tell your Members of Congress to stop the attacks on Planned Parenthood, and to stand up for women’s health and women’s rights.

This rather depressed me. And you have to feel sorry for these folks. So determined are they to hold onto immorality, that any evidence, even that which is false, is sufficient. They eagerly jettison reason, logic, observation, everything. “Heavily doctored” videos forsooth! They create that absurdity—the videos are plain and easily seen to be so—and then use it to imply to themselves that “editing” means “lies.” This gives them excuse not to watch the videos—and thus it removes the need to confront evil.

For the sake of completeness: killing a life inside a mother is not a “health service”, it is the opposite. A “women’s rights to make their own reproductive decisions” cannot be made in isolation of the man who impregnated her, and the “right” to kill her child is the point in dispute. If, as should happen in a just country, Planned Parenthood disappeared, women would still be able to get mammographies etc.

Utilitarianism (a tenet of liberalism and libetarianism) must lead, and has led, to tyranny and evil: the ends cannot justify the means. The law does not and cannot decide what is evil or immoral. Of course, when the law fails to conform to human nature, as ours does, then the end must come. It is only a question of when. If Planned Parenthood gets away with this, which is likely, it will be much sooner than later.

Done With Dante

Dante’s Divine Comedy ‘offensive and should be banned’

The classic work should be removed from school curricula, according to Gherush 92, a human rights organisation which acts as a consultant to UN bodies on racism and discrimination.

Dante’s epic is “offensive and discriminatory” and has no place in a modern classroom, said Valentina Sereni, the group’s president…

“The Prophet Mohammed was subjected to a horrific punishment — his body was split from end to end so that his entrails dangled out, an image that offends Islamic culture,” she said.

Homosexuals are damned by the work as being “against nature” and condemned to an eternal rain of fire in Hell.

I’m offended that thinking Islam might be offended should justify that Dante should be banned. Therefore the UN may not ban. Homosexuals aren’t damned: those who commit homosexual acts, which are obviously against nature, and do not seek forgiveness are damned. As we all are unless we also ask for grace.

The Past Is History

Activist group shovels ground at Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s grave

On July 22 a group of protesters from the Commission on Religion and Racism (CRR) used a shovel and “dug up a patch of grass next to” Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Memphis statue, saying they hope others “follow suit and dig him up.”

NAACP still pushing to sandblast Confederate leaders from Stone Mountain

Once the Confederate Battle Flag came down on the grounds of the South Carolina Capitol complex, the Left had won their great victory and everyone could go home and get on with their lives, right? (I’ll pause for a moment so everyone can finish laughing.) Of course not. Nothing is ever truly going to be enough, and the NAACP has been on a push for more than a week with a larger target in mind. A much, much larger target. They would like the 90 by 190 foot sculpture at Stone Mountain Park in Georgia sandblasted from the face of the mountain. Rising 400 feet above the ground, it’s the largest, highest outdoor relief sculpture in the world and depicts Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.

Orwell says, “There was never a Confederacy.” Yet another symptom of believing “truth” is decided by the powerful.

One Party Shall Rule Them All

Ted Cruz on the Senate floor: Mitch McConnell’s a liar and our new majority is a cronyist fraud

Sample quote: “[This majority] does get things done, but it listens to one and only one voice: That is, the voice of the Washington cartel, of the lobbyists on K Street, of the big money and big corporations.” This guy is talking about his own caucus.

Prediction about the effect of this speech: none. There is also thus no reason to discuss the Iran deal.

The Remnant: Ever Wonder Why Gmarriage Is Only Legal in Post Christian Nations?


Today’s post is at The Remnant: “Ever Wonder Why Gmarriage Is Only Legal in Post Christian Nations?

Have you noticed that gmarriage—government-defined marriage—is legal only in post-Christian nations? Why this is so in a moment, but first a brief review of where we stand.

The Netherlands were the first to pretend that two men (or two women) can be married, making it the law of the land in 2001. Belgium followed close at heel in 2003, with the flight from reality gaining momentum in 2005 with Canada and Spain. As of this writing, there are twenty-four countries mandating gmarriage, with Finland, Ireland, Mexico, and the United States the latest entries.

Go there to read the rest. Albert Jay Nock would: you should, too.

The Perfectibility of Man: Suicide of the West at 50

Equality for all!

Equality for all!

It’s (past) time we examined James Burnham’s under-appreciated classic Suicide of the West: An Essay on the Meaning and Destiny of Liberalism, a book written fifty years ago. Everybody should buy this book and follow along.

Read Part I: Take Burnham’s test to see whether you’re a liberal.

We’re still at the point of defining terms. Now it is well known that liberals consider themselves “rational”. One of the first acts of the Enlightened during the French Revolution (which might not have happened if the Americans hadn’t got away with theirs) was to create the Culte de la Raison. Catholic churches were converted into Temples of Reason. Fouché ordered crosses stripped from graveyards. Notre Dame herself was made to endure the installation of the non-goddess Liberty. The preposterous enthusiasm of the Rational eventually annoyed Robespierre who persuaded members, in that quiet way of his, to cease and desist.

But it was an axiom of the Enlightenment, guided as it was and is by reason and rationality, that mankind can be perfected. Human nature must therefore be infinitely supple and able to accept instruction in any subject. Humanity has “an unlimited or any rate indefinitely large potential for positive…development.” Each generation would and must progress. There’s more than a whiff of Lamarckianism about this.

The opposite of liberalism may be called realism. This isn’t Burnham’s term: he used conservative or reactionary: the former term is today damaged and the latter is negative, thought still apt. Whereas liberalism hopefully dictates to nature, nature soberly informs and restrains realism. Realism is “expressed in the theological doctrines of Original Sin and the real existence of the Devil, that human nature had a permanent, unchanging essence, and that man is partly corrupt as well as limited in his potential.” Modern liberals, Burnham says, are not as insistent about “perfectible” and now say mankind is “plastic.” We can be nudged, as some now say. “Liberalism rejects the essentially tragic view of man’s fate found in nearly all pre-Renaissance thought and literature”. Realists note the irony.

Half a century ago, still pre-Vatican II, Burnham classed “some” Catholics as liberal, but as “uneasy” ones. He was then able to say, “Nearly all liberals keep their ideological fingers crossed when they observe such a group as the Jesuits beginning to sound like liberals, as the American Jesuits have often done of that in the pages of their principal magazine, America.” The tricked worked: Jesuits are now solidly in the liberal camp; not to a man, but to the extent that one Catholic writer called the group “self-loathing.America magazine now reads like any NGO pamphlet.

Liberals are scidolators: “rational science…both comprehend the world and solve its problems.” Scientism is a never-recognized fallacy. Policy is now said to be equivalent to science. Morality and ethics are quickly coming to the same point. Liberals believe all truths are not only scientific, but that all can be discovered scientifically. Such optimism! Some modern-day reactionaries, even, fall into this error.

Now, since human nature is plastic or perfectible, and we are by universal agreement still imperfect, “obstacles” must be stopping us from reaching Utopia. There are two: “ignorance—an accidental and remediable, not intrinsic and essential, state of man; and bad social institutions.” All liberals believe in the Whig theory of history. All liberals share the unrealistic optimism of Bertrand Russell. I’ve quoted these words spoken by John Maynard Keynes about Russell many times (himself a liberal), but they bear frequent repeating:

Bertie in particular sustained simultaneously a pair of opinions ludicrously incompatible. He held that in fact human affairs were carried on after a most irrational fashion, but that the remedy was quite simple and easy, since all we had to do was to carry them on rationally.

As the late lamented philosopher David Stove (who supplied the quotation) commented, “Just two effortless sentences, and yet how fatal they are to any belief in Russell’s political wisdom, or even sense! They are like a bayonet thrust through the heart and out the back.” Yet, pierced as he was, Russell did not drop. The wound was mortal; thus we can only conclude that liberalism is the philosophy of the undead.

Liberals, Burnham notes, speak of “problems”. Readers will know the modern list. Problems are things that can and should be solved. That solutions should be sought and implemented forthwith is unquestioned and unquestionable. This is why a liberal only has to mention a “problem” or to “raise awareness”. There are no liberal writers, then or now, “who flatly declare of a pending political, economic, or social problem that is not going to be solved, that it is just plain insoluble.”

That which is causing imperfection, since humans are perfectible and educable, must be institutional. “Thus liberalism is anti-traditional.” Burnham: “I rather think that the attitude toward tradition furnishes the most accurate single shibboleth for distinguishing liberals from conservatives”.

Which brings us back to Russell. In his Why Men Fight he said the task of education “should not be to uphold but to destroy ‘contentment with the status quo….It should be inspired, not by a regretful hankering after the extinct beauties of Green and the Renaissance, but by a shining vision of the society that is to be, of the triumphs that thought…will achieve in the time to come.” Similarly, Mill called Chesterton’s “democracy of the dead”, i.e. custom, “despotism” and a “hindrance to human advancement.”

And the revolution marches ever on. Stick around. There’s much more to come.

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