Sunday, August 11, 2013

How Bill O'Reilly Can Be Accidentally Correct

Well, Bill O'Reilly is going to have a heck of a time being correct on purpose. He made an argument, a very smug one, on the absolute proof of the existence of God. In case you missed it, it happened a while ago that O'Reilly said,
O'REILLY: See, the water, the tide comes in and it goes out, Mr. Silverman. It always comes in, and always goes out. You can't explain that.
His statement was stupid, and it still is. In fact, it is a bottomless stupidity, because it requires Mr. O'Reilly to not merely not know something that most of us know, but to actually forget things that he almost surely learned.

What causes the tides? The moon. The moon is large enough to attract rocks, to attract water, to pull on everything, even making the Earth bulge just a wee bit. Effectively, as we go from day to night, as the moon goes from over the water to opposite the water, a huge wave develops from the center of the ocean rising, then falling. Voila! The tides come in and go out. 

However, O'Reilly thought that the tides were mysterious, proof, in their reliability, of God. Nothing so vast could be so precise and so regular, it seemed to him, without the omnipotent being attentive to it. Interestingly, another argument of ignorance for God is that something is too unreliable or small to be anything but evidence of God. Thereby people will argue that a cancer in remission or a car accident must establish a divine intervention (randomness mandating a controlling intelligence) and that the modern tide tables' precision proves that God is being a global harbormaster.

I know that there is a God, but I would not offer the sort of argument that either Bill O'Reilly did -- where the vastness of anything proves it or the bewilderment of chance demands it -- and the idea of holding up such an argument as if it were self-proven is sadly funny. However, Bill O'Reilly, as I said, got accidentally correct. The first place was by showing, rather than knowing or telling, the process of his need.

It's not my place to judge anyone except students who pay me, and then I only judge their writing. I do not know the depth or complexity of Bill O'Reilly's faith, and I hope that it is deeper than he showed in that anecdote. What he showed, though, was a faith born out of incomprehension rather than mysticism and an assumption that Authority is always in control of all large actions. A person touched by that need will carry with him an assumption that "the government" is in control, that a bad meal at a restaurant was the result of "the staff" persecuting him, etc.

O'Reilly's attitude toward tides is not fundamentalist Christian. We can glance back a couple of centuries and see how actual puritains viewed the inexplicably large. See Daniel Defoe's The Storm as one grand example. At that time, no one knew how the winds worked, really, although they were getting close, and you can see that Defoe ascribes divine power to a place beyond the physical but saw in individual providence of survival or perishing as tinged with God's power. Defoe, unlike some today, had the brains to realize that bad events did not equal a scourge. (See also his A Journal of the Plague Year.)

O'Reilly's "proof," that tides are too big to exist without some Authority in charge, is a true statement about a mind set, a psychology. For some people, all things incomprehensible are also under authority. The atomic bombs are well regulated, the NSA spying is too big to understand and thus a self-aware and self-controlled entity. 

The other way O'Reilly was accidentally accurate is that, in the most technical sense, we really don't know what causes the tides.
  1. The moon's mass is sufficient to attract the oceans, which are 70% of the earth's surface (0.02% of the mass of the planet).
  2. Time lapses with cameras on a Foucault's pendulum show that stones on a mountain side rise and fall with the moon.
  3. #2 is probably wrong on the how they compensate with the cameras.
  4. In physics, gravity is the weak force that all particles of matter have attracting to other particles of matter.
So, each bit of matter wants to be near all other matter.
Very well. How?

The truth is that the simplest, most logical explanation for the tides is the gravitational effect of the moon. All persons of sense would accept that answer. Certainly, that's my answer. However, Isaac Newton, when he was working with gravity, couldn't explain how it reached out. He had to resort to spirits, in effect, and "fluxions" to get things attracted. No one can see a "gravitron" or any strings pulling pieces of matter together. We universally recognize the force as present, but it isn't even like a magnet with iron filings.

Bill O'Reilly's explanation is no explanation for the existence of God, although it does give us insight into a paranoid personality complex. Further, if he were to be correct, on the basis that no one can adequately explain gravity, he would exchange one type of indeterminacy (perfect regularity, but no visible cause) for another (perfect agency, but no visible means).

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