How Widespread Is McGrathian Old-Earth Creationism (MOEC)?

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by Tim Widowfield

Mega Millions tickets
Mega Millions tickets (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Several years ago, my much-adored and much-missed mother-in-law came to visit us. This was back when we lived in Ohio. I loved her almost as much as my own mother, which is the only reason I agreed to buy her lottery tickets. She had a different, perhaps “old-world” view of the universe. Dreams could tell a person what number to play the next day. Doing certain things in a certain order might cause desired numbers to “come up.” The future was foreordained, and if you were lucky, God might drop you a hint.

As a materialist and well-documented anti-supernaturalist, of course, I consider the investment in the lotto as a tax on people who don’t understand math. With great embarrassment, I asked the clerk at the counter for the tickets. Climbing back into the car, I handed them over and said, “I hope you realize you’re the only person on Earth I’d ever do this for.” And she smiled.

I don’t recall exactly what happened after that, although I can tell you she didn’t win. Normally, when the local station showed the pick-3 and pick-4 numbers during Jeopardy!, she’d claim those were the numbers she was going to play. “Shoulda played it. Nuts. Tsk-tsk.”

Earlier, I referred to that kind of thinking as old-world. But maybe “old-school” is more apt. In any case, if you think God can affect or predict the outcome of random events — if you think he runs a rigged table — then this is the logical conclusion. God plays dice, and they’re loaded.

When James McGrath takes potshots at Mythicism or Young-Earth Creationism (YEC) (often comparing one with the other), I’m often reminded of those lottery tickets I bought over a decade ago. Was my mother-in-law right? Is my view of randomness wrong?

Take a look at what the people over at BioLogos have to say on the subject.

A third misconception is that evolution is a random, purposeless process. It is true that individual mutations of the genetic code appear random from the perspective of science, in the sense that they are unpredictable. But “unpredictable” does not mean “purposeless,” and elements of randomness might have important purposes. Consider a video game, where the game designer intentionally includes random elements to create a richer experience. A Christian can view God’s governance of the evolutionary process as a similar use of “intentional randomness.” And then there are other elements of the evolutionary process that are not at all random, like the selection of positive variations that increase fitness. Whether the process as a whole is purposeless is not a scientific question. At BioLogos we believe that God intentionally created human beings, and did so through evolution.

Remember, McGrath is a big fan of BioLogos. He lauds their attempts at merging religion and science into a supposedly coherent whole. These are liberal Christians with whom he identifies: sophisticated, educated Christians who have created a compromise position. Make no mistake, though. While they have made important concessions with respect to the Bible — viz., they reject biblical inerrancy, the six-day creation, etc. — they’ve tinkered with science, too. And that horsecrap you read above proves my point.

Do genetic mutations “appear random from the perspective of science”? You bet they do. That’s because they objectively do occur randomly. What other perspective is there besides objective reality? The fantasy alternative is for God to reach in with a tiny (non-material) finger, bumping specific molecules, changing reality, playing with loaded dice.

Does God govern evolution via “intentional randomness? This is the sort of meaningless, sewage-laced treacle that we expect to read from Deepak Chopra, not from doctorate-level scientists. As soon as any agency acts upon a system with intent, it ceases to be random. Video game designers can simulate randomness, but they cannot create randomness. If God really does act upon the universe to impose his will, then the system is not random; it is guided. Any system affected by intentional action cannot, by definition, be random.

McGrathian Old-Earth Creationists “believe that God intentionally created human beings, and did so through evolution.” They can believe whatever they want, but this is not the standard model. If you bring in the guiding hand of God, you don’t need natural selection; in fact you can’t have natural selection. What you have is selective breeding carried out by a supreme being. The single essential difference between MOEC-adherents and their cousins, the YEC-adherents, is the time scale. Rather than mold us out of mud, God undertook a very long-term biology experiment, guiding what would have been natural processes had he not interfered.

McGrath and his sophisticated pals cling to these magical beliefs not because of material evidence and logic, but out of a deep-seated desire to make Christianity relevant and, at some abstract level, true and real. I don’t much care whether they take the entire Bible and turn it into a metaphorical book of fairy tales. Eventually, to maintain any hope of contact with reality, that’s where they’re going to end up.

But I think we need to call them out when they claim they’re defenders of evolution. What they’re preaching is something else, namely the denial of scientific evolution in favor of a DNA-tinkering god-of-the-gaps.

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Tim Widowfield

Tim is a retired vagabond who lives with his wife and multiple cats in a 20-year-old motor home. To read more about Tim, see our About page.

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22 thoughts on “How Widespread Is McGrathian Old-Earth Creationism (MOEC)?”

  1. Quite apart from the illogic and idiocy of it all, — So the implication is that God builds in to the process all those “random” pathways that do not lead to humans in order to enjoy the richness of the experience the way a videogamer enjoys the richness of a violent video-game that is also about the survival of the fittest. Graphic “nature red in tooth and claw” is all about God and his favourite angels enjoying the richer experience of his wondrous deed.

    1. 1.
      All things bright and beautiful,
      All creatures great and small,
      All things wise and wonderful,
      The Lord God made them all.

      Each little flower that opens,
      Each little bird that sings,
      He made their glowing colours,
      He made their tiny wings.

      All things bright …

      The rich man in his castle,
      The poor man at his gate,
      God made them high and lowly,
      And ordered their estate.

      All things bright …

      The purple headed mountain,
      The river running by,
      The sunset and the morning,
      That brightens up the sky;−

      All things bright …

      The cold wind in the winter,
      The pleasant summer sun,
      The ripe fruits in the garden,−
      He made them every one:

      All things bright …

      The tall trees in the greenwood,
      The meadows where we play,
      The rushes by the water,
      We gather every day;−

      All things bright …

      He gave us eyes to see them,
      And lips that we might tell,
      How great is God Almighty,
      Who has made all things well.

      All things bright …

      Perhaps another verse is good:

      Ebola and the Raptor,
      Created also well,
      His finger gently nudging,
      Earthly heaven?- Also hell.

      As Carrier has demonstrated, complicated and extravagant possibility argumentation actually lowers probability.

          1. There is a difference between “omnipotence” and “omnibenevolence”, and the latter does not necessarily follow from the former. It is comparable to the problem of deriving “ought” from “is”. Whatever you think about its origins and processes, the universe (including predation and the emergence of human moral evaluations) remains something of a mystery which observational and experimental science has not begun to solve, even if it were logically possible.

            1. I know there is a difference between “omnipotent” and “omnibenevolent,” which is why I added the latter to your phrasing. The problem of suffering poses no threat to the positing of an “omnipotent” creator. It does pose a problem to an “omnipotent,” “omnibenevolent” creator. The use of “omnibenevolent” is usually included with regards to the divine triad, whereby a deity is described to be simultaneously “omniscient,” “omnipotent” and “omnibenevolent.” This triad is used especially with the Christian god, Yahweh. It is problematic to suppose there is a loving, caring, personal God who watches over us and has a plan for our lives, and at the same time recognize the reality of the fact that there are, for example, three year old children suffering of, and dying from, cancer. That’s not love.

    2. McGrath and BioLogos do not understand were there “logic” takes them.
      There conclusions remind me of the scifi movie Prometheus. What Mr. Widowfield pointed out is right on-
      “What you have is selective breeding carried out by a supreme being.” In this case the “Engineers” in the the movie, who were just superior aliens, were the supreme being. no supernatural stuff.

      1. Please, call me Tim. You’re spot on, Pombal.

        And it’s even worse for the evo-theo bunch. Recall that McG makes fun of YEC-ers for their mischievous God who makes it appear as if the Earth is old, when it isn’t, who makes it look as though light is coming to us that’s billions of years old, when it isn’t.

        Their position is no better. They’re essentially stuck with the argument that the world looks random, but is actually guided by their invisible friend. How is this in any way a scientific argument? How does it even pass the giggle test? I’m suspicious of any “scientific” theory that depends on a trickster god. And I would hope that any religiously inclined person would be troubled by a theology that says the supreme being deliberately misleads them.

  2. There is no such thing as a believing Christian who rigorously enforces the historical-critical method in their approach to Jesus. Such a person would have to acknowledge that we know little-to-nothing about the historical Jesus (it is the consensus of all critical scholars that we know little beyond the fact that Jesus was crucified), which means nearly 100% of what they listen to in church on Sunday is just made-up wishful thinking.

    How can someone know nothing about a person but still devote his/her life to this unknowable enigma? Better yet, why would anyone bother to be a Christian when the meaning of “Christianity” is completely made up and arbitrary?

  3. “McGrath and his sophisticated pals cling to these magical beliefs not because of material evidence and logic, but out of a deep-seated desire to make Christianity relevant and, at some abstract level, true and real.”

    I think McGrath believes in a historical Jesus for the same reason. McGrath is chronically unable or unwilling to try and understand the arguments mythicists make, he’s short-tempered when he is asked a question, and generally dogmatic, all of which to me suggests that there is something behind his belief in a historical Jesus other than just a desire to understand history and share his knowledge with others.

    Indeed, McGrath has recently posted a plea for someone with a Greco-Roman background to read Richard Carrier’s book:

    ^This is an admission of failure from McGrath: he couldn’t adequately answer Carrier’s arguments, so he is hoping someone else will.

    1. From the linked article:

      ” I’m not sure what the mythicists will appeal to in their attempt to discredit such individuals, but they will certainly try something. It is what mythicists do.”
      — McGrath

      I’m starting to wonder if a mythicist killed his dog or something. What turns a so-called academic into such a clown of an ideologue? What makes an academic link himself publically to something as ridiculous and provincial as BioLogos?

      “I’m asking someone who is busy and finds it hard to keep up with the abundant literature in their own field to read something in another, and more than that, to read 700 pages of unpersuasive claims, in order to try to persuade people who are unlikely to listen, and who are on the other hand very likely to cause them headaches for their efforts.”
      — McGrath

      This is why i used clown earlier. This is the man who’s unable to form coherent arguments against Carrier when he gets to cherry pick what passages he comments on, and here he is, bombastically declaring *every* page has unpersuasive claims. Why he gets to skip relevant chapters left and right, and then focus on a detail here and there when he is doing a review himself, is left as an exercise for the reader i guess.

      1. I know I shouldn’t be surprised at anything by now, but why do they keep referring to Casey’s last book? It’s truly bad. And besides that, it’s unnecessary. They’ve already got a mediocre, readable book by Ehrman that fills the bill. He’s a respected author who’s reasonably well known in the mainstream press.

        So why not let Casey’s soiled diaper fade away and be forgotten? It’s almost as if they’re deliberately sticking a thumb in our eye. As if they feel the need to prove to us that merit doesn’t matter.

    2. If you have leanings toward “Jesus mythicism” you’ve landed in hostile waters McGrath.

      I think there is no reason to believe that the central events of the religion (1 The Crucifixion, 2 The Empty Tomb, 3 The Resurrection) have any historical memory to them. Paul says Jesus died, was buried, and was raised “according to scripture (1 Cor 15:3),” which could either mean that (i) Jesus’ crucifixion, burial, and resurrection were fulfilling scripture, or (ii) that Paul discovered Jesus’ crucifixion, burial, and resurrection through an allegorical reading of Hebrew scriptures. In either case, Jesus’ crucifixion in Paul serves a theological function, so it can be doubted as to whether it can be traced back to the historical Jesus (it could have served a theological purpose for the first Christians to invent these events and attributing them to Jesus).

      As for the gospels on the 1 Crucifixion, 2 Burial, and 3 Resurrection:

      (1) The Crucifixion in Mark:

      Likely the clearest Prophecy about Jesus is the entire 53rd chapter of Isaiah. Isaiah 53:3-7 is especially unmistakable: “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.”

      The only thing is, as Spong points out, Isaiah wasn’t making a prophesy aboout Jesus. Mark was doing a haggadic midrash on Isaiah. So, Mark depicts Jesus as one who is despised and rejected, a man of sorrow acquainted with grief. He then describes Jesus as wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities. The Servant in Isaiah, like Jesus in Mark, is silent before his accusers. In Isaiah it says of the servant with his stripes we are healed, which Mark turned into the story of the scourging of Jesus. This is, in part, is where atonement theology comes from, but it would be silly to say II Isaiah was talking about atonement. The servant is numbered among the transgressors in Isaiah, so Jesus is crucified between two thieves. The Isaiah servant would make his grave with the rich, So Jesus is buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, a person of means.

      Then, as Dr. Robert Price says

      The substructure for the crucifixion in chapter 15 is, as all recognize, Psalm 22, from which derive all the major details, including the implicit piercing of hands and feet (Mark 24//Psalm 22:16b), the dividing of his garments and casting lots for them (Mark 15:24//Psalm 22:18), the “wagging heads” of the mockers (Mark 15:20//Psalm 22:7), and of course the cry of dereliction, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34//Psalm 22:1). Matthew adds another quote, “He trusts in God. Let God deliver him now if he desires him” (Matthew 7:43//Psalm 22:8), as well as a strong allusion (“for he said, ‘I am the son of God’” 27:43b) to Wisdom of Solomon 2:12-20, which underlies the whole story anyway (Miller), “Let us lie in wait for the righteous man because he is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions; he reproaches us for sins against the law and accuses us of sins against our training. He professes to have knowledge of God, and calls himself a child of the Lord. He became to us a reproof of our thoughts; the very sight of him is a burden to us because his manner of life is unlike that of others, and his ways are strange. We are considered by him as something base, and he avoids our ways as unclean; he calls the last end of the righteous happy, and boasts that God is his father. Let us see if his words are true, and let us test what will happen at the end of his life: for if the righteous man is God’s son he will help him and will deliver him from the hand of his adversaries. Let us test him with insult and torture that we may find out how gentle he is and make trial of his forbearance. Let us condemn him to a shameful death, for, according to what he says, he will be protected.”

      As for other details, Crossan points out that the darkness at noon comes from Amos 8:9, while the vinegar and gall come from Psalm 69:21. It is remarkable that Mark does anything but call attention to the scriptural basis for the crucifixion account. There is nothing said of scripture being fulfilled here. It is all simply presented as the events of Jesus’ execution. It is we who must ferret out the real sources of the story. This is quite different, e.g., in John, where explicit scripture citations are given, e.g., for Jesus’ legs not being broken to hasten his death (John 19:36), either Exodus 12:10, Numbers 9:12, or Psalm 34:19-20 (Crossan). Whence did Mark derive the tearing asunder of the Temple veil, from top to bottom (Mark 15:38)? Perhaps from the death of Hector in the Iliad (MacDonald). Hector dies forsaken by Zeus. The women of Troy watched from afar off (as the Galilean women do in Mark 15:40), and the whole of Troy mourned as if their city had already been destroyed “from top to bottom,” just as the ripping of the veil seems to be a portent of Jerusalem’s eventual doom.

      And so we can at least propose there may not be any historical content with a fairly comprehensive exegetical reading of The Passion of the Christ in Mark.

      Paul also doesn’t mention Pilate, so this may be a Markan invention.

      (2) The Empty Tomb (Mark 16:1-8)

      Price comments that Crossan and Miller and Miller note that the empty tomb narrative requires no source beyond Joshua (=Jesus, remember!) chapter 10. The five kings have fled from Joshua, taking refuge in the cave at Makkedah. When they are discovered, Joshua orders his men to “Roll great stones against the mouth of the cave and set men by it to guard them” (10:18). Once the mopping-up operation of the kings’ troops is finished, Joshua directs: “Open the mouth of the cave, and bring those five kings out to me from the cave” (10:22). “And afterward Joshua smote them and put them to death, and he hung them on five trees. And they hung upon the trees until evening; but at the time of the going down of the sun, Joshua commanded, and they took them down from the trees, and threw them into the cave where they had hidden themselves, and they set great stones against the mouth of the cave, which remain to this very day” (10:26-27). Observe that here it is “Jesus” who plays the role of Pilate, and that Mark needed only to reverse the order of the main narrative moments of this story. Joshua 10: first, stone rolled away and kings emerge alive; second, kings die; third, kings are crucified until sundown. Mark: Jesus as King of the Jews is crucified, where his body will hang till sundown; second, he dies; third, he emerges alive (Mark implies) from the tomb once the stone is rolled away.

      The vigil of the mourning women likely reflects the women’s mourning cult of the dying and rising god, long familiar in Israel (Ezekiel 8:14, “Behold, there sat women weeping for Tammuz;” Zechariah 12:11, “On that day the mourning in Jerusalem will be as great as the mourning for Hadad-Rimmon in the plain of Megiddo;” Canticles 3:1-4, “I sought him whom my soul loves; I sought him but found him not; I called him but he gave no answer,” etc.).

      (3) The Resurrection of Jesus (Matthew 27:62-28:20)

      Price argues Matthew had before him Mark’s empty tomb story and no other source except the Book of Daniel, from which he has embellished the Markan original at several points. (Matthew had already repaired to Daniel in his Pilate story, where the procurator declared, “I am innocent of the blood of this man,” Matthew 27:24b, which he derived from Susanna 46/Daniel 13:46 LXX: “I am innocent of the blood of this woman.”) (Crossan). First, Matthew has introduced guards at the tomb and has had the tomb sealed, a reflection of Nebuchadnezzer’s sealing the stone rolled to the door of the lion’s den with Daniel inside (6:17). Mark had a young man (perhaps an angel, but perhaps not) already in the open tomb when the women arrived. Matthew simply calls the character an angel and clothes him in a description reminiscent of the angel of Daniel chapter 10 (face like lightning, Daniel 10:6) and the Ancient of Days in Daniel chapter 7 (snowy white clothing, Daniel 7:9b). He rolls the stone aside. The guards faint and become as dead men, particular dead men, as a matter of fact, namely the guards who tossed Shadrach, Meschach, and Abed-nego into the fiery furnace in (Daniel 3:22).

      To provide an appearance of the risen Jesus to the women at the tomb (something conspicuously absent from Mark), Matthew simply divides Mark’s young man into the angel and now Jesus himself, who has nothing more to say than a lame reiteration of the angel’s words. He appears again on a mountain in Galilee (Matthew 28:16) which he now says Jesus had earlier designated, though this is the first the reader learns of it. There he dispenses yet more Danielic pastiche: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” This is based on a conflation of two Greek versions of Daniel 7:14. In the LXX, “to him [the one like a son of man was] … given the rule… the authority of him [the Ancient of Days].” In Theodotion, he receives “authority to hold all in the heaven and upon the earth.” The charge to make all nations his disciples comes from Daniel 7:14, too: “that all people, nations, and languages should serve him” (Helms).

      1. As I said, Jesus’ crucifixion, burial, and resurrection in Paul serve a theological function, so it can be doubted as to whether they can be traced back to the historical Jesus (because it could have served a theological purpose for the first Christians to invent these events and attribute them to Jesus). Biblical scholars commonly use this hermeneutic process to exclude attributing miracle stories to the historical Jesus.

  4. “It is true that individual mutations of the genetic code appear random…”. Clearly, Francis Collins did not see this comment before publication because he well knows that it is untrue. The genetic code does not mutate. If it did, it would be useless as a code. What does mutate is the genome.

    1. Excellent point. “Genetic code” is the rule set that determines how genes are translated into proteins. If that set of rules changed randomly, you’d die real bad.

  5. When I try to introduce people to thinking rationally, I usually start with something like this:

    I am teaching a class, and I write upon the blackboard three numbers: 2-4-6. “I am thinking of a rule,” I say, “which governs sequences of three numbers. The sequence 2-4-6, as it so happens, obeys this rule. Each of you will find, on your desk, a pile of index cards. Write down a sequence of three numbers on a card, and I’ll mark it “Yes” for fits the rule, or “No” for not fitting the rule. Then you can write down another set of three numbers and ask whether it fits again, and so on. When you’re confident that you know the rule, write down the rule on a card. You can test as many triplets as you like.”

    Here’s the record of one student’s guesses:
    4, 6, 2: No
    4, 6, 8: Yes
    10, 12, 14: Yes

    At this point the student wrote down his guess at the rule. What do you think the rule is? Would you have wanted to test another triplet, and if so, what would it be? Take a moment to think before continuing.

    The challenge above is based on a classic experiment due to Peter Wason, the 2-4-6 task. Although subjects given this task typically expressed high confidence in their guesses, only 21% of the subjects successfully guessed the experimenter’s real rule, and replications since then have continued to show success rates of around 20%.

    The study was called “On the failure to eliminate hypotheses in a conceptual task” (Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 12: 129-140, 1960). Subjects who attempt the 2-4-6 task usually try to generate positive examples, rather than negative examples—they apply the hypothetical rule to generate a representative instance, and see if it is labeled “Yes”.

    Thus, someone who forms the hypothesis “numbers increasing by two” will test the triplet 8-10-12, hear that it fits, and confidently announce the rule. Someone who forms the hypothesis X-2X-3X will test the triplet 3-6-9, discover that it fits, and then announce that rule.

    In every case the actual rule is the same: the three numbers must be in ascending order.

    But to discover this, you would have to generate triplets that shouldn’t fit, such as 20-23-26, and see if they are labeled “No”. Which people tend not to do, in this experiment. In some cases, subjects devise, “test”, and announce rules far more complicated than the actual answer.

    I then go one step further. What if you actually did try to posit triples that shouldn’t fit, yet every one you can think of fits? 20-23-26; 19-10-44; 111-16-987; 312-77-15; all are ‘yes’. What is the only pattern that can explain every possible triplet? No pattern. That is, the only rule that can fit every random sequence of triplets is no rule at all.

    If you expand this rationale to all reasoning and comparing competing explanations, it seems to be a rule that, if you want to know if something is true, you have to know when it is false: A math test where it’s impossible to get a wrong mark no matter what answer you provide doesn’t tell you if you know the math. Thus said math test is worthless as a test.

    God can explain both OEC and YEC. As a matter of fact, a god can explain any and every observation we can hypothetically come up with. It’s impossible to get a wrong answer with putting forth a god as an explanation. In other words, god is the analogous situation to a math test where it’s impossible to get a wrong answer, or the pattern guessing where no matter what triplet you guess, it’s always a ‘yes’.

    Put plainly, god is the epistemic equivalent of randomness. And as my mom would say, a difference that makes no difference is no difference. “Working in mysterious ways” is the greatest euphemism for failure ever devised.

    With that said, I don’t think McGrath’s (or any OEC, actually) concern here is intellectual rigor. OEC is a middle ground between naturalism and YEC. In that sense, it’s a purely social endeavor; it accomodationalism.

    As an analogy, let’s say that one group of Wikipedia editors says that the Earth is round, and another says that the Earth is flat. An accomodationalist would propose that the Earth is shaped like a calzone to appease both groups. But the purpose of Wikipedia is what’s real; or rather, whatever is the consensus of experts related to the fields of geology and cosmology. It benefits no one — intellectually — to suggest that the Earth is shaped like a calzone.

    Any time someone proposes some sort of middle ground between two positions, one should be weary. If one starts thinking that it “sounds like a good compromise”, well, this has nothing to do with whether it’s true. In fact if you notice that thought, you should become immediately suspicious of it. Compromise is a social good, and with us being social animals, we often confuse “social good” with “objectively true”.

    And, a person who says he is willing to meet you halfway is usually a poor judge of distance.

    1. Extremely well put. This is the sort of basic, sound reasoning that’s missing over on the Cakemix.

      J. Quinton: “In that sense, it’s a purely social endeavor; it accommodationism.”

      Exactly. It’s also very reminiscent of another popular apologetic pastime: harmonization. The language is even similar. Apologists talk about “alleged” errors and “supposed” errors (always in scare quotes), which shows they’ve already decided it all must be true and they simply need to make it all fit somehow.

      Accommodationists imagine a world where scientific discoveries *must* cohere with their understanding of God. So you’ll hear them say that’s it’s a mistake to think that Christianity and science are incompatible. Well, maybe it is and maybe it isn’t; but they’ve pre-decided that they must be compatible because they are both indisputably true. All that remains is to understand how they are both simultaneously true.

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