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Reply to The Other Skeptic

Dear Other Skeptic:

I enjoyed your post and agree with much of what you said. Your primary point seems to be that there is no proof of God. I quite agree.

You wrote, “It defeats the purpose of faith when there’s ‘proof’.” Theologians have been saying that for many centuries. The great St. Augustine of Hippo (A.D. 354-430) said essentially the same thing.

It could be pointed out that there is also no proof that God does not exist. But doing so raises the problem of who owns the burden of proof, the believer or the skeptic. I’m inclined to agree with the great Atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell that the proof lies with the believer. I’m okay with that because I don’t need proof.

I agree largely with your comments about Creationism and Intelligent Design (ID) and to some extent your comments about the probability of life evolving elsewhere in the universe and in a so-far-still-highly-speculative multi-verse. Yes, and of course, your comments on a fine tuned universe reflect the opinion of many scholars. But your facts need some work. The question is far from resolved, with some of the world’s greatest cosmologists, astronomers and theoretical physicists coming down on both sides of the issue.

You wrote:

For example, there is a laughable theory that states if you take a ruler that measures inches and stretch it across the universe. The ruler is supposed to represent the possible range of gravity. If the formula for gravity was just one inch off, then there would be no life anywhere. This is preposterously false. It was created not by a physicist, astronomer, or any other professional who could make those types of calculations. It was fabricated by a lawyer, a creationist lawyer. Everyone knows that astronauts do just fine where there is no gravity.

You are, of course, referring to Philip E. Johnson, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley. There are two problems. First of all you try to poison the well by implying that the gravity question in fine tuning was the invention of a lawyer, a creationist lawyer, no less. You are factually correct that the ruler analogy was proposed by Johnson, but wrong in thinking that because he is a lawyer he is unqualified to speak to the issue. He is only responsible for the analogy (you sound like those you most criticize). The underlying issue has been raised by many great physicists and cosmologists.

Martin Rees is considered by many to be England’s greatest living scientist and perhaps the world’s greatest cosmologist for his work on microwave background radiation in the universe, theories about the clustering of galaxies, quasars and black holes. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society and its current president. He has identified six constants in nature such as the ratio of the strength of electromagnetism to that of gravity that if even slightly different would make the universe, as we know it, impossible. There would be no stars, no galaxies, no planets, and no carbon-based life. (Others have identified other constants in nature to the same effect but Rees’ selection dominates for now.)  Rees doesn’t necessarily think this implies design or the existence of God. But others do.

Stephen Hawking is a contender for the title of greatest of the living cosmologists. His blazing intellect is beyond question. And he describes just one of these relationship brilliantly:

We know that there has to have been a very close balance between the competing effect of explosive expansion and gravitational contraction which, at the very earliest epoch about which we can even pretend to speak (called the Planck time, 10-43 sec. after the big bang), would have corresponded to the incredible degree of accuracy represented by a deviation in their ratio from unity by only one part in 10 to the sixtieth power.

The ruler analogy is actually a good one for what both Rees and Hawking say, even if it was created by a creationist with whom you and I otherwise disagree.

Your criticism of the Genesis accounts is fairly good, though you ramble too much. You might be interested to know that St. Augustine writing in the fifth century would have agreed with you in large measure. Many Christian believers today also agree. I’m okay with it, too.

The Shroud of Turin:

For some strange reason you decided to introduce the Shroud of Turin into this discussion. Here you tripped up rather badly on matters of fact. If we remove questions about God’s existence from the questions about the Shroud, the evidence becomes overwhelming. There is no need to appeal to miracles to explain the images. And claims that the Shroud is somehow evidence of a miracle, even specifically the Resurrection, is problematic. Believe what you want, but get the facts right.

Let’s look at what you wrote:

You wrote, “It is supposedly the shroud in which Jesus Christ was buried.” That is what is at issue. Okay. I agree.

You wrote, “He left a mark on the shroud as he floated through it on his way to heaven.”

The vast majority of scientists who think it is real or might be real do not think any such thing. This notion has been voiced in the public (oh, just incidentally by a lawyer). Most scientists and Shroud scholars say only that we have no idea how the image was formed. No idea! And we don’t mean by that that the absence of evidence is evidence of anything.

Oh, it should be pointed out that scripture refers to two different events: the Resurrection and the Ascension (into heaven). You meant the Resurrection. At least that is what some contend. Most believers in the Shroud are more open-minded on this point, however.

In 1988, the Shroud was carbon dated. It was determined, then, that the cloth was medieval. Hence it was declared a forgery. But, twenty years later, in 2008, Philip Ball, the former physical science editor for Nature, the acclaimed, peer-reviewed, international scientific journal that published the carbon dating results, wrote an interesting piece in Nature Online. He is writing as a scientist only:

It’s fair to say that, despite the seemingly definitive tests in 1988, the status of the Shroud of Turin is murkier than ever. Not least, the nature of the image and how it was fixed on the cloth remain deeply puzzling.

Ball explains why it is murky. He gives two example. One is scientific; the other historical. His reasons are solid.

You did write:

Probably the most controversial evidence is radiocarbon 14 dating. Researchers have found that the shroud was made between 1260 and 1390 AD. This seems very reasonable because the “discovery” of the shroud was recorded around 1355.

Yes, and no, no, no, no. The earliest record of the shroud in extant historical records in Western Europe is in 1355. As Ball and countless others very well know there are many records of a shroud in Edessa, Constantinople, Athens and Besancon before 1355. The only question is this: Is it the same shroud? Today, the evidence is overwhelming that it is.

You wrote, “Some people claim that the cloth was either exposed to carbon monoxide, fire (which contains carbon dioxide in the smoke).”

Actually this has been fairly well refuted by Christopher Ramsey at the Oxford Radiocarbon Dating lab. This is not why the carbon dating was wrong. And Ramsey does agree that further studies are needed. Check your facts.

You wrote:

Even if the carbon dating was unreliable because of some event that made the shroud’s age somewhat inaccurate, there is other evidence that shows that the shroud is counterfeit. Walter McCrone, a leading expert in microscopy, was a part of the Shroud of Turin Research Project.

Actually, McCrone was not a part of STURP despite his claim that he was kicked out. He never accepted the agreement not to publish before studies were completed (fairly standard). He was therefore not accepted into the group. I have the official list and know many of the members of STURP. He was not part of STURP.

You wrote:

He found that the stains that is supposed to be blood of Christ is actually pigment (red ochre and vermilion tempera to be exact). Alan Adler and John Heller published an article opposite to what McCrone wrote concluding that the stains were blood. As it turns out, neither Heller nor Adler were eligible to make the assumption that the stains were blood.

Huh? Where do you get this? Heller and Adler (as well as many others) did numerous tests on the bloodstains. The late Adler was one of the leading experts on blood. He was eligible. They were all eligible.

All of the material cited below, and their publishing journals, are peer reviewed scientific journals. Incidentally, McCrone’s work is not peer-reviewed. Mark Anderson, doing a review, found that McCrone had misidentified both the red ochre and the vermilion. Further tests at the University of Nebraska also showed that McCrone was wrong.

It is human blood:

Various chemical tests by E. J. Jumper, A. D. Adler, J. P. Jackson, S. F. Pellicori, J. H. Heller, and J. R. Druzik are documented in a peer-reviewed scientific paper "A comprehensive examination of the various stains and images on the Shroud of Turin," ACS Advances in Chemistry, Archaeological Chemistry (1984)

You wrote:

Another reason to be more certain that the shroud is fake is that there are several traces of vanillin. Vanillin is the residue of decomposed lignin. This chemical is commonly found in medieval wear but not in older material. For example, the Dead Sea Scrolls were wrapped in material that did not contain vanillin. This and other evidence makes the accuracy of carbon 14 dating of the shroud more acceptable.

You got this backwards. There is no vanillin on the shroud. See the peer-reviewed scientific journal Thermochimica Acta (Vol. 425, pages 189-194). This is what Ball was referring to in Nature. The cloth cannot be medieval.

One more point about gravity. Your wrote: “Everyone knows that astronauts do just fine where there is no gravity.”

The question of gravity to which address yourself has nothing to do with whether or not astronauts or any form of life can live without gravity. If gravity was not what it is there would be no planets or stars or galaxies or most of the chemical elements that exist. This isn’t even questioned by any serious scientists at all. The only question is one of a designer and as you probably know that is why the speculation about a multi-verse has traction. Without gravity there would be no massive stars, the nuclear engines required to transform three helium nuclei into carbon by means of this triple-alpha process. Without carbon there would be no astronauts.

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