Saturday, 20 October 2012

Arguing With Inspirational Quotes Written On Little Pictures #1 - Douglas Adams

The Internet has brought us many wonderful things. This blog, for instance. And kittens.*
One of the wonderful things it has brought us is: Inspirational Quotes Written On Little Pictures.

Now, I'm up for a little bit of inspiration now and again. Especially if it is paired with a nice little picture of, say, a kitten. But the pithy-quote-on-a-picture thing has run rampant of late. Weirdly, it seems to have become the communication method of choice when it comes to discussing the most important of topics.

The formula is pretty simple:

1) Take a huge subject about which people have extremely strongly held and conflicting views.
2) Find a famous person who said something vaguely pertinent about it once.
3) Stick that quote on top of a picture.
4) Post it on Facebook.
5) Wait for everyone who agrees to hit the like button and share it.
6) Watch as people write millions of mindless comments underneath it savagely attacking anyone who disagrees with the quote.

This, it seems to me, is what now passes for debate in our society. Which is a pretty sad state of affairs. I've recently stumbled across a gold mine of these quotes-on-pictures, and for the good of all mankind I've decided to argue with some of them. Aren't I nice? I'm not trying to win any debates, I'm just trying to encourage some.

So, here is today's Quote Written On A Little Picture.

That is indeed a very nice garden. Well done, BeautyOfAtheism.

The quote, in case the picture is so beautiful you can't quite read it, is this: "Isn't it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?"

I have so much to say about this that I've had to make a mug of camomile tea, don a fluffy dressing gown, and put on all my Carpenters albums**, in the hopes that these things will keep me calm enough to make my point without resorting to rabid polemic and mud-flinging. Let's see if it works...

Now, obviously, this is a quote promoting atheism. Atheists love Douglas Adams, because he was famous and funny and a fellow atheist.
Well, guess what? I also love Douglas Adams. He was a clever chap and an excellent writer. I'm sure he'd walk all over me in a debate. But he's not here to debate with me, and we're not dealing with the whole of his thinking on this issue. We're just dealing with the short quote that got stuck on a picture. And this quote is just nonsense.


The Sufficiency Of Beauty

We'll get to the fairies in a bit. Firstly, I'd like to look at the implications of the word "enough". You may disagree with me here, but I think this quote is proposing what I've just decided to call the doctrine of the sufficiency of beauty. The doctrine of the sufficiency of beauty goes a bit like this:

Oh look, this thing is beautiful.
Well, that's me satisfied.

Or, to put it another way:

Ironically, I had to make this quote-on-a-picture-o-gram myself, since everyone
else who had done it had used really ugly pictures. What's that about?

Isn't that just lovely? Well, hang on while I sip my tea and turn the Carpenters up a bit. Because this idea DRIVES ME MAD.
What we have here is a justification for ignorance. A justification for adultery. A justification for selfishness. A justification for shallowness. A justification for porn. A justification for photoshopping. A justification for bullying, segregation, laziness, complacency, and a philosophy that will tear our society into bloodied writhing chunks of horror.

Nope, need more tea and Carpenters.

Ahhhhhhhhh, the calming stares of the calming Carpenters
waving their calming flowery fairy wands. So very calming.

This is also, incidentally, an argument against science. Which is ironic, since most of the people who share and 'like' this quote are also of the opinion that science and faith are mutually exclusive.

Here's where the doctrine of the sufficiency of beauty gets you:

Argument against science: Isn't it enough to see that a garden is beautiful, without having to understand how it works?
Argument for adultery: Isn't it enough to see that a garden is beautiful, without having to worry about whose it is?
Argument for selfishness: Isn't it enough to see that a garden is beautiful, without having to worry about other people who can't afford a house with a garden?

I could go on.

Isn't it enough to see that something is beautiful?
No. Because beauty is not truth, and truth is not beauty, and that is not all we know in life, and it is not all we need to know.

Let me tell you a story about a beautiful garden. This garden belonged to the mother of a friend of mine. The mother in question was not too well and couldn't mow her lawn, so I did it for her. Yes, I know, I'm the nicest guy in the universe. Anyway, a week or so after I'd mowed the lawn, my friend's mum got a letter from the council.

Dear Dave's friend's mum, it said.
We've just done some tests in your area, and have discovered that there are dangerously high levels of arsenic in the ground on which your house was built. We advise you not to spend too much time in your garden.
The council.

Isn't it enough to see that a garden is beautiful?
No, because occasionally beautiful things turn out to be arsenic-filled death traps. True story. (I'm fine, by the way, thanks for asking.)

Actually, we all know this stuff about beauty. For example, in all of the Bond movies, how many of the super-deadly female super-spies have been uggos?

Okay, one. But she hired a super-glamorous young spy to do her dirty work.

Ironically, you can see this playing out in the garden too. Think of all the things in nature that look beautiful precisely because that's how they attract their prey.

So next time you look at the beauty of creation and think "Ah, this universe is so beautiful that I don't need to worry about whether or not there is a God", spare a thought for the hapless flies who, somewhere in the world, are thinking "Ah, this flower is so beautiful that I don't need to worry about whether or not I'm actually being lured into a sticky pit where I'll be slowly digested alive."

Not that beauty is a bad thing. But you can't trust it, and you can't make it your guiding principle. We can't afford to confuse good versus bad with beautiful versus ugly.

For example, according to Isaiah, Jesus had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. (Isaiah 53:2)

Conversely, we all know what happened here:

Wait - Angela Lansbury? Samson and Delilah would make
for an awesome episode of "Murder, She Wrote"...

Judge things according to their beauty, and you'd end up picking Delilah over Jesus. Which is a recipe for getting your head shaved, your eyes gouged out, and a Philistine temple landing on you.

Responding To Creation

Moving on from the whole question of beauty, what this quote-on-a-picture boils down to is this: "Look, a magnificent universe. Wow, I guess there can't be a God then."

This stems from a view of divinity that people like to call "The God Of The Gaps": God is in charge of the inexplicable; science is in charge of the explicable. Science is inexorably marching into God's territory, leaving fewer and fewer things unexplained. God is out of a job, and belief in him is therefore stupid and unscientific.

Let me clarify that with a carefully-drawn, deeply scientific diagram:

God as enemy of Science: Man gets cleverer, God gets smallerer.

Anyone remember Paul Daniels? Probably England's most famous magician, and my childhood hero. I met him once. It was a bit of a shock, because since growing up I'd worked out how he did a lot of his tricks, and had therefore concluded that he couldn't exist.

That's my patented Paul Daniels Of The Gaps argument***.

The God revealed in the Bible is not a God of the Gaps. He's not threatened by science. He invented science. And the universe - explicable or inexplicable - is evidence for his existence. Paul puts it very strongly in Romans:

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. (Romans 1:18-20)

Or, in diagram form:
God as creator of Science: Man gets cleverer, God gets biggerer.

No evidence for the existence of God? Look around. And just think how much more we know about the universe than they knew back when Paul was writing. The more science opens up the wonders of the universe for us, the more evidence we have. And the more we are without excuse.

Jesus Versus Fairies

This final point is a bit like shooting fish in a barrel. Is Christianity comparable to myths about tiny flying girls mucking about in the rhododendrons? To put it another way, what is there more evidence for: fairies or Jesus?

Actually, to be fair, I haven't really looked into the evidence for fairies. I'm sort of assuming they don't exist. Which is not terribly scientific of me, but time is short and I'm running out of Carpenters albums.

No, I got quite excited too, but it turned out just to be a costume. Still, thank
you Britney, for giving me the excuse to crowbar you into yet another post. 

Tell you what, let's replace fairies with Plato. What is there more evidence for - Jesus or Plato?
Well, we're pretty sure Plato exists. We've got his writings. Not the originals, of course, since they were written around 400BC and haven't survived. But we've got copies - seven of them, which is reasonable. The earliest of those copies date from 900AD, a mere 1200 years after he wrote them. That's not bad. People seem generally happy to trust those documents.

Or how about Caesar, writing around 100-44BC. The earliest fragment from his writing dates from only 1000 years after the originals, and we have a pretty respectable ten copies, or bits of copies, of his writing.

Or Tacitus - famous historian, writing around 100AD. Everyone loves Tacitus. The earliest fragment we have of his writing also dates from 1000 years after the originals. And we have an eye-popping 20 copies of that. Brilliant.

What about the New Testament, containing the so-called eye-witness accounts of Jesus' life? Fairy stuff, compared to these famous historical people, right?
Well, the earliest copies of the New Testament date from about 125AD. That's, oooh, 25-50 years after the originals were written.
And there are twenty-four thousand of them.

What this means, of course, is that Christianity is not based on myth or legend. It's not a fairy tale. It's underpinned by a staggering amount of evidence. If you are going to put Christianity in the same category as fairies, then Plato, Tacitus, Caesar - in fact, all of classical antiquity - just became leprechauns.****

Putting It Together

I hope I've demonstrated that, at least in principle, it's very dangerous to sit around in a beautiful garden saying "Ah, this garden is beautiful, that's all I need to know".

The Bible tells us that our Universe points to a God. We're in his garden. We didn't create it, we don't own it, we're not in charge of it. And while we are indolently lounging on our recliners, sipping our margaritas and enjoying the scent of the honeysuckle, we have relegated the garden's rightful owner, ruler and sustainer to the status of mythical-being-down-by-the-compost-heap. I've done it, Douglas Adams did it, everyone has done it. So now we have a problem much bigger than arsenic poisoning: The Romans quote above tells us that God is angry... and we have no excuse. We can't plead ignorance, we can't make up for it by offering to mow the lawn, we can't make little puppy-dog eyes and wheedle our way out of it. How long do you think we'll get to enjoy the garden for if we've rejected the garden's ever-present, all-powerful owner, sustainer and ruler?

This is a problem we can't fix ourselves. It's a real problem, for which we need a real solution. A solution that isn't in the category of fairy, leprechaun, myth.

The eye-witness accounts of Jesus' life found in the New Testament are the best bibliographically attested documents of the ancient period by a staggering degree. The gospels are not legend, hagiography, fiction, or fairy tales.

Let's stop all this mucking around with inspirational quotes written on little pictures, and give them a read.

*Apparently we already had kittens, but who remembers that?
** Sequentially, that is. I don't want to consider the implications of playing six Carpenters albums simultaneously.
*** I genuinely did meet him. And Debbie McGee too. I couldn't think what to say to her, so I legged it.
**** There's quite a lot of evidence for the person of Julius Caesar, of course, since he managed to get himself onto a bunch of Roman coins, buildings, a brand of dog food and all that. But when it comes to his writings, they are about a gajillion times less well attested than the New Testament.


  1. Paul Daniels of the gaps?! Love it!

  2. Great post. But sadly, you missed the opportunity to use the word embiggens on one of your captions.

    1. Hmm, yes, bother. Well, God willing, there will be other posts, and with them other opportunities to use the word embiggens. To make sure I remember I've added it to my list of awesome words, just under lucubration and valetudinarianism.

  3. Hmm. This post appears to me to have several flaws. 1. I think you have misinterpreted Adams' quote. He is saying that beauty is irrelevant to the question of God, not that it proves or disproves God's existence. 2. You try to place God outside science, but then invoke evidence (part of the scientific method) to demonstrate his existence. In a way, you are invoking the ultimate God of the gaps argument by explicitly trying to place God outside of the realm of scientific discovery. (And if, like me, you believe that all knowledge is ultimately scientific, that is a major problem). 3. That Jesus, like Plato or Caesar, existed is not particularly problematic. It is other claims about Jesus that are under scrutiny. If people claimed that Caesar performed miracles, for example, I for one would be equally skeptical. Another issue with the final section is basically that you do not examine all of those other things people do not usually think of as evidence, but in fact are evidence. For example, in considering Caesar's existence, we do not have to take account of the human tendency to seek emotional comfort over logicality, but that is very much the case for somebody promising life after death.

    1. Hi Jonathan, thank you for stopping by - I'm really glad you took the time to read and comment. I'm sure there are many more than three flaws in my post, but I'll try to answer the ones you raised.

      1) Whatever argument Douglas Adams intended by this quote, I almost always see it used in a pejorative, anti-Christian way. It's this use that I set out to debate. My concern is that a lot of the people who propagate the quote haven't thought much beyond "I don't believe in God, here's a pithy saying by a universally-loved author that backs me up, job done." I was hoping to show that the quote doesn't back them up at all.

      (In actual fact, as my friend Mairi pointed out to me last night, the context of the quote completely undermines the atheistic argument here:

      "As Ford gazed at the spectacle of light before them excitement burnt inside him, but only the excitement of seeing a strange new planet, it was enough for him to see it as it was. It faintly irritated him that Zaphod had to impose some ludicrous fantasy on to the scene to make it work for him. All this Magrathea nonsense seemed juvenile. Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?" (From The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy novel.)

      If you know your Hitchhiker's, you'll know that the legendary planet of Magrathea does turn out to exist - i.e. there really are fairies at the bottom of this particular garden. Which kinda makes this quote a bit of an own-goal for the atheist slogans-on-postcards lobby.)

      2) I need to think about this one some more. I'll get back to you.

    2. 3) You say that the idea that Jesus existed is not particularly problematic, but take a look at any article about Christianity that comes up on the Guardian website. I guarantee that in the comments you will find a whole bunch of people arguing vociferously that "Jesus never existed, as any fule kno." In fact there is overwhelming evidence to show that he existed. As for the miraculous claims about him, there are two explanations:

      A: That he was God. There is nothing particularly surprising about the idea of God being able to do miracles, so this theory fits the evidence quite nicely - if you are prepared to believe God exists, of course.

      Or B: That the claims about him are lies. If this is so, we don't have to believe in God, but then we need an explanation for why the evidence was faked, who faked it, how they faked it, why so many people were taken in by the forgery, and so on. Which is actually quite difficult. For example, the human tendency to seek emotional comfort over logicality might help explain the current popularity of liberal Christianity, but it can't explain why the first Christian apostles were prepared to face persecution, torture and death for spreading a gospel which they would have known to be fake.

      Incidentally, I would argue that the "Beautiful garden, let's not worry about God" philosophy is much more comforting (and less logical) than the claims of Christianity, which are frankly terrifying.

      By the way, there's a fun little inconsistency behind the usual objections to the second and third sections of this post:
      Objection 1: God can't exist because we see no evidence for his existence - everything is explicable by science.
      Objection 2: Jesus can't be real because it's claimed he did miracles, and we know miracles aren't scientifically possible.

      So we don't believe in God because he *hasn't* done anything miraculous, and we don't believe in God because he *has* done something miraculous. How's that logic work?

    3. 1. In which case, I entirely agree :)

      3. There is a third option, which seems much more likely to me. That is, that the disciples really were convinced that Jesus really was the genuine article. However, they either could not or did not satisfactorily evaluate their experiences.

      You only have to look at modern "miracles" such as the milk miracle to see that people can individually and collectively be willfully blind to obvious explanations (and even to what they could plainly see). Confirmation bias is well known. There are additionally many sincere believers in all sorts of paranormal stuff, who will claim to have seen ghosts, have psychic abilities, be able to dowse etc. Do you really put it past people 2000 years ago to have sincerely believed similar stuff? Furthermore, I would not put it past people to fabricate or exaggerate, even if well meaning. For example, Matthew and Mark give different accounts as to how quickly the cursed fig tree withers. Clearly, at least one of them has been liberal with the truth.

      Extra bit: Objection 1 (or at least the spirit of it) is I think sound. I think this "contradiction" arises because Objection 2 is basically nonsense. You can't suggest that somebody didn't exist because somebody else claimed something about them. The resolution,. I think, is that what is *meant* by objection 2 is that Jesus was unlikely to have performed miracles, because other explanations are far more likely given the evidence. (Which basically makes it identical to objection 1.)

      We can even make this a bit more formal. What we are asking for is the probability that God exists, given the claim that Jesus performed miracles. So let's introduce the third event "Jesus performed miracles" using the law of total probability:

      P(God|Claim) = P(God|Claim,Miracles)P(Miracles|Claim) + P(God|Claim,¬Miracles)P(¬Miracles|Claim)

      My assumption would be that P(Miracles|Claim) is small - for the present purposes, let's say P(Miracles|Claim) ~= 0, then P(¬Miracles|Claim) ~= 1, and this simplifies to

      P(God|Claim) = P(God|Claim,¬Miracles).

      The probability that God exists given that Jesus did not, in fact, perform miracles, is clearly low. So the probability that God exists given that somebody claimed Jesus performed miracles is also low.

    4. By the way, thanks for clarifying the context of the Adams quote. I did not know it was from The Hitchhiker's Guide. In that case, I am slightly more reluctant to assume it was ever intended to be a completely rigorous argument for or against anything.

      However, if this was indeed the intention meant to be an expression of his personal opinion, the existence of Magrathea seems to lend support to what I regard as the "proper" atheist argument: he is acknowledging the possibility that fairies do exist, even though, on the present state of evidence, he thinks this so unlikely as to assume they do not exist.

  4. So the number of people parroting a popular story correlates to the quality of evidence about the story being true? Or it doesn't?

    Don't quite follow you argument there.

    1. Hi Stefan, thanks for commenting. I was merely trying to show that Christianity is not in the same category as fairytales. As for parroting a popular story...

      Firstly, take a skim through the book of Acts - you'll see that the gospel was anything *but* popular. It's still unpopular now.

      Secondly, as to it being a "story" - that doesn't really make sense. There was no such literary genre as "mockumentary" or "fictional biography" back in them days. Why invent a story about a guy who pretends to be God, gets killed and comes back to life? Why take that story and try to pass it off as truth? Maybe for laughs, fame, power, money, girls, and a free bus pass - but the apostles got none of that. Worst get-rich-quick idea ever.

      Finally, the number of people parroting a popular story, in this case, correlates to the quality of evidence that the story we read now is the same story that was written two thousand years ago. There's no way we can argue that what we have now was corrupted through translation, or Chinese whispers, or was amended later, or was actually written by Jane Austen, or whatever. What we have now is what was written then, and we can be remarkably confident about that. Which leaves us the big problem of how to explain what was written. Simplest explanation: God exists, Jesus was who he said he was.

  5. Let's turn it around. I am actually not really interested in looking into the evidence for God. I'm sort of assuming God don't exist. Going to watch Peter Pan now and will apologize to Tinkerbell on your behalf.

    1. Hurrah, Bea, I'm so pleased you read this. Thank you for taking the time, and for commenting. I'm afraid I don't really understand your argument though. Can you elucidate or would you like to save it for when we next meet face to face, which, incidentally, is loooooong overdue...?

  6. I really appreciate your explanation of the "God of the Gaps" idea and the opposing viewpoint. As a Christian engaged in research, it's often frustrating to me to see Christians feel threatened by science and/or indicate that science is unimportant. On the other hand, it's also frustrating to see atheists or agnostics claim that being able to understand how the universe works is evidence against God's existence. I take the same view as you, but I don't think I've ever been able express it very clearly.