18
Sep
06

Sam Harris: You Can’t Be a Scientist and religious

Sam Harris is a man on a mission. He wants people to abandon all faith, because he feels people of faith are the most dangerous people in the world. That is, any faith.

To promote his viewpoint, he has posted a long “response” to the Pope’s address that has caused such a ruckus. I put response in quotation marks because, well, it’s an interesting retort that twists the Pope’s speech into something it’s not.

Continue enlightenment…


Sam starts with:

a speech so boring, convoluted and oblique to the real concerns of humanity that it could well have been intended as a weapon of war.

You can see where this is going.

Sam continues:

While the pope succeeded in enraging millions of Muslims, the main purpose of his speech was to chastise scientists and secularists for being, well, too reasonable.

What speech was he reading? What Sam is alluding to is that the Holy Father explained, quite well, is that ethics derived from secular reasoning are inherently flawed because they are made by man. Ultimately the system becomes corrupt.

Here’s what the Pope said:

In the meantime, it must be observed that from this standpoint any attempt to maintain theology’s claim to be “scientific” would end up reducing Christianity to a mere fragment of its former self. But we must say more: if science as a whole is this and this alone, then it is man himself who ends up being reduced, for the specifically human questions about our origin and destiny, the questions raised by religion and ethics, then have no place within the purview of collective reason as defined by “science”, so understood, and must thus be relegated to the realm of the subjective. The subject then decides, on the basis of his experiences, what he considers tenable in matters of religion, and the subjective “conscience” becomes the sole arbiter of what is ethical. In this way, though, ethics and religion lose their power to create a community and become a completely personal matter. This is a dangerous state of affairs for humanity, as we see from the disturbing pathologies of religion and reason which necessarily erupt when reason is so reduced that questions of religion and ethics no longer concern it. Attempts to construct an ethic from the rules of evolution or from psychology and sociology, end up being simply inadequate.

It’s an excellent discussion of the inherent flaws in allowing subjective and personal will to dictate ethical formation. In other words, because man is a creature who derives knowledge from his experiences, and all experiences are different, then each man will derive a faith-system that is unique to that man and has no overreaching relevance. In addition, as ethos flows from such a faith-based system (regardless of the religion in question), the ethos becomes wholly subjective. For example, if a man kills another to take that man’s food and bring it to his family, and there are two observers, one will say “It’s a crime of murder!” while the other says “He cannot be condemned for only trying to keep his family alive!” The same act is viewed differently by two different people, and their particular moralities, regardless of sources, conjure different emotions upon seeing such an act.

Sam:

The pope suggests that reason should be broadened to include the empirically unverifiable.

Evidently the speech was so boring that Sam forgot how to read. Sam, what the Pope is saying is this: reason without moral temper is dangerous.

If you have any doubt this is true, think about the Jews who were experimented upon by Mengele. If Mengele had any possible repulsion to such experiments, he would never have done them. But he lacked a conscience and only pursued greater scientific knowledge, regardless of the cost.

Sam then diverts to the Catholic profession of faith. Essentially he just (mis)used something the Pope said to launch himself into the tired, misunderstood notion that Catholics are cannibals:

While one can always find a Catholic who is reluctant to admit that cannibalism lies at the heart of the faith, there is no question whatsoever that the Church intends the above passage to be read literally.

He makes it sound like we’re all closet Hannibal Lecters. But Sam is too busy sharpening his blades to truly understand the Sacrament of the Eucharist. It’s easy to paint his foes as “unreasonable cannibals”, so he does that because it’s easy.

Sam then makes the same error that most of the Muslim world has made:

It is ironic that a man who has just disparaged Islam as “evil” and “inhuman” before 250,000 onlookers and the world press is now talking about a “genuine dialogue of cultures.”

No, he was quoting a man from 700 years ago. The Pope uses that as a jumping point to declare ALL religious violence as anathema to God’s will.

Sam:

The Koran says that anybody who believes that Jesus was divine–as all real Catholics must–will spend eternity in hell (Koran 5:71-75; 19:30-38). This appears to be a deal-breaker. The pope knows this. The Muslim world knows that he knows it.

Again, that dodges what the Pope is saying. It IS possible for religions to coexist so long as all religious renounce violence. There cannot be Holy War and still be a true understanding of the divine message, regardless of the religion from which it comes.

Sam runs off onto a tangent again:

We might, however, note in passing that one of the pope’s “most profound convictions” is that contraception is a sin. His agents continue to preach this diabolical dogma in the developing world, and even in sub-Saharan Africa, where over 3 million people die from AIDS each year.

It is a sin. Maybe if Sam had taken the time to find out why, he wouldn’t be so quick to say it. But he doesn’t. He doesn’t even mention that the Church promotes abstinence before marriage, the best way not to get AIDS. But using such information would not give Sam the cheap shot he so desperately needs to get his point across.

Sam concludes:

I hope it doesn’t seem peevish to point out that the West faces several dangers even greater than those posed by an incomplete epistemology. The West is endangered, primarily, by the religious fragmentation of the human community, by religious impediments to clear thinking, and by the religious willingness of millions to sacrifice the real possibility of happiness in this world for a fantasy of a world to come.

Solution: Destruction of all religion. It’s the only way to save our civilization!

It’ll only cost you your soul.


9 Responses to “Sam Harris: You Can’t Be a Scientist and religious”


  1. 1 Anonymous
    September 18, 2006 at 1:15 pm

    Here’s a great litle “well said!” comment from the Huffpost story (“Pope Benedict, Who Converted Who?” < http://www.huffingtonpost.com/russell-shaw/pope-benedict-now-who-co_b_29655.html >

    I will agree that when one commentor talks of “marvellous cultures” crushed by the Conquistadors (namely the Aztecs, but the Maya and Inca as well), he is completely glossing over the RITUAL SACRIFICES put on by the Aztec and Maya high priests, sometimes thousands of prisoners sacrificed to, literally, bloodthirsty gods. It was the native tribes allied with the Conquistadors who sealed the fate of Montezuma’s empire – those neighboring tribes were sick of providing prisoners and body-counts every time some Aztec noble wanted to demonstrate his prowess, or dedicate a new temple.

    But even so, ALL the sacrifices, put together, of all the savage and pagan cultures don’t compare to the cruelty of “the creator” should we believe literally the bible story of Genesis, which holds that god, outraged that “DISOBEDIENT” Adam and Eve ate some damn forbidden fruit, expelled them from Eden… into a world where TENS of THOUSANDS upon MILLIONS of CHILDREN would, in the future, die deaths of misery, famine, disease, poverty, abuse…. and wanton cruelty inflicted on so many children by cruel men and women for whatever reason.

    IF you hold that the God of the bible is “ALL-mighty”…. and IF you hold that as one sitting in judgement god COULD reverse his original damnation… then it must logically follow that EVERY child who dies of a cruel fate, so dies BECAUSE THE LORD WANTS IT THAT WAY

    Total up ALL the children that have died in human history, then even the pagan, thousands-killed ritual sacrifices pales in comparison to the body count demanded by God for Eve & Adam’s “original sin.”

    A rather silly story that puts the accent on “OBEDIENCE” to centralized AUTHORITY (and thereby justifies power, the concentration of power, and the abuse of power for all future societies), with a WA-AY disproportionate sense of “justice,” if you ask me.

    Now, as a proponent of modern post-enlightenment rationality and science-based logic (i.e. “reality”) I will concede that when space, necessities (such as water, food supply, etc.) or other valuable commodities become scarce, humans WILL FIGHT to control those scarce resources; and that by banding together, a group has a much better chance of prevailing (winning, surviving) over hapless individuals, or even a large army poorly disciplined. That is the rational explanation for religion: anything that organizes people into a large, focused, and disciplined group will be much better in a fight than a bunch of savage warriors having no overall discipline or coordination. And, I believe, we humans are so hard-wired (“programmed”) to know our place in the group, that any religious spin that explains our place in the hierarchy will be quickly grasped on to. That is, we, our brains, KNOW that if we disobey the all-powerful leader of our clan or tribe, that they can have us killed, either in solo combat with a poweful warrior king, or by his sending his goons to kill us. Disobey the Pharaoh or any other almighty king, get your head chopped off! – it’s a”reality” that our brains understand. So our minds grasp as any rational reason why we SHOULD bow to such a leader, thus our human predisposition “to believe.”

    It is really just our more complex minds trying to create an order or framework out of the basic primate (or other social animal) reality, “CHOOSE UP SIDES, and FIGHT to DOMINATE the local resources.”

    Muslim, Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, Mayan, Inca or Aztec.. ALL religions are an excuse to band together, and bash the heads of those who would oppose our group, deny us access to happy hunting grounds, reproduction, or other vital commodities.

    << It is amazing and amusing that your Holiness say things which are factually wrong and highly inflammatory . The Moslem world was just recovering from the latest Crusade in Labanon , which flattened the country and maimed its inhabitant. That nasty little war came on the heel of Afganistan and iraq wars , while waiting for the immenent crusade againist Iran . The Moslem war ,certainly , wish that the American and the West ,came with Swords rather than the high tech arsenal with mass destruction of their counteries .

  2. 2 Saisho
    September 18, 2006 at 7:39 pm

    What speech was he reading? What Sam is alluding to is that the Holy Father explained, quite well, is that ethics derived from secular reasoning are inherently flawed because they are made by man.

    I hear this tiresome canard quite a lot from believers who never seem to cotton onto its numerous flaws.

    1) There is absolutely no way to wring a coherent moral system from the Bible or the Koran, because they are so full of contradictions. The Bible contains genocide, child murder, drunken serial incest, and fratricide, all in the first couple of hundred pages. These diabolical verses are as canonical as any in the Bible and are completely antithetical to, say, the sermon on the mount. What this means is that any moral system derived from the Bible can only be a creation of man.

    In other words, we are the ones who decide what is good in the Good Book, and believers emphasise some verses and ignore others using their own moral compass.

    2)

    If religion really were necessary to sustain the moral fabric of our societies, shouldn’t there be some objective evidence that atheists are less well behaved than their religious contemporaries? Perhaps in the form of crime statistics? Shouldn’t we expect atheistic societies like Sweden (64% atheist) to be the bleakest of moral miasma’s? Shouldn’t we expect the child molestation rate in the (93% atheist) National Academy of Sciences to be higher than in the Catholic Church? Of course we should. Yet, as I’m sure you know, the truth is rather different.

    When our Nobel Laureates start dousing women seeking abortions with pig’s blood, forcing infants to take up arms for Jesus (cf ‘The Lords Resistance Army’), committing “honour” killings, or obliterating themselves in crowded restaurants with the express intent of causing maximum loss of life [i]then[/i], [i]maybe[/i], we can start talking about what could possibly be inspiring them to such dizzying heights of barbarism. I say ‘maybe’, of course, because such discussion could only be effected if their divinely inspired religious contemporaries were to [i]stop[/i] committing such atrocities, a cessation I don’t expect to see any time before the heat death of the universe.

    3) Do you really think that dismembering children with battle axes can only really be wrong if there exists a God who says it is? Just out of curiosity, if this God were to vanish in a puff of logic tomorrow, to what extent would your moral compass become decalibrated?

    I suspect you wouldn’t even notice the difference.

  3. 3 Doc
    September 18, 2006 at 8:07 pm

    IF you hold that the God of the bible is “ALL-mighty”…. and IF you hold that as one sitting in judgement god COULD reverse his original damnation… then it must logically follow that EVERY child who dies of a cruel fate, so dies BECAUSE THE LORD WANTS IT THAT WAY

    You assume that Genesis is literal fact. You have to understand when it was written and to whom it was written. Genesis is a “why and how” for simple people. Imagine I was transported back into time and had to explain the Big Bang theory to a shepherd would couldn’t even write. Explain evolution, medicine, and the like to some guy who’s been barely able to keep his family fed. How do I convey to him the creation of the universe? I put it in simple terms he can relate to.

    Adam & Eve and the other stories leading up to Abraham are allegory. They are not meant to be literal truth, but they are meant to show that A) God gave man free will and B) from free will derives sin.

    If God created a world with no disease, no pain, everything flowers and sausages (from the sausage tree, no doubt!), then there would be no need for man to struggle and overcome his environment. If there are no diseases, there is no need for medicine. Without medicine, there is no need for chemistry. There is no necessity to improve, and man is an inherently lazy creature. Rarely will he pursue learning unless there is a monetary lure.

    That is the rational explanation for religion: anything that organizes people into a large, focused, and disciplined group will be much better in a fight than a bunch of savage warriors having no overall discipline or coordination.

    No, that is the rational explanation for civilization. Religion is a construct of society. Religion is an attempt to explain nature. At its core, the monotheistic religions are more interested in explaining man’s nature than nature itself. That is left up to science.

    That is, we, our brains, KNOW that if we disobey the all-powerful leader of our clan or tribe, that they can have us killed, either in solo combat with a poweful warrior king, or by his sending his goons to kill us. Disobey the Pharaoh or any other almighty king, get your head chopped off! – it’s a”reality” that our brains understand. So our minds grasp as any rational reason why we SHOULD bow to such a leader, thus our human predisposition “to believe.”

    I think you should reexamien the concept. If we are hard-wired to fulfill a particular niche, then there cannot be revolution.

    Muslim, Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, Mayan, Inca or Aztec.. ALL religions are an excuse to band together, and bash the heads of those who would oppose our group, deny us access to happy hunting grounds, reproduction, or other vital commodities.

    Again, correction: some religions have been used as such an excuse. Please point to examples for the first 300 years of Christiandom where Christians bound together to bash in brains. I’ll also contend that the Romans were not driven by religion to conquer, but by political necessity. That they had gods was secondary to a political and societal mandate.

  4. 4 Doc
    September 18, 2006 at 8:17 pm

    1) There is absolutely no way to wring a coherent moral system from the Bible or the Koran, because they are so full of contradictions. The Bible contains genocide, child murder, drunken serial incest, and fratricide, all in the first couple of hundred pages.

    Speaking of tiresome canards…

    The New Testament has none of those. Show the letters from St. Paul detailing Pogroms, or jihad. Explain where Sharia is enshrined by St. James. It’s not.

    Whenever people have something bad to say about Christianity, they always site 3 things: Crusades, Inquisition, and the Old Testament. And each is expressly denounced in the New Testament.

    If religion really were necessary to sustain the moral fabric of our societies, shouldn’t there be some objective evidence that atheists are less well behaved than their religious contemporaries?

    There are two great examples. Communist China and the USSR. Both were atheistic societies based upon the great idea that all people should share equally. What do we see? That the party leaders rise to the top, the bottom people are horribly abused, and equality is entirely up to the state.

    Both reject religion. Both derived a moral basis directly from anthropoligic society study. And both systems were abominably brutal.

    Do you really think that dismembering children with battle axes can only really be wrong if there exists a God who says it is? Just out of curiosity, if this God were to vanish in a puff of logic tomorrow, to what extent would your moral compass become decalibrated?

    Well our belief that such dismemberment is wrong flows from a contemporary view of Western society that was largely influenced by a Christian moral standard.

    You may be interested on checking the impaling of Chinese babies when the Japanese invaded China in WWII. Seems that some people didn’t think it was that wrong, especially when they are impaling inferior Chinese children. You can’t pin that on Bhuddism or Christianity, either. That atrocity is strictly societal prejudice.

    And your posit about God “vanishing”… my moral compass would already be established. If he vanished 4000 years ago, then you might have an argument.

  5. 5 Saisho
    September 18, 2006 at 10:03 pm

    Doc Wrote:

    The New Testament has none of those. Show the letters from St. Paul detailing Pogroms, or jihad. Explain where Sharia is enshrined by St. James. It’s not.

    So what? Firstly, it’s facile in the extreme to ask me to find condemnations of Islamic doctrine in the letters of a man who predated Mohammed by about 600 years.

    Secondly, there exists no Biblical standard by which to ascertain the superiority of the New Testament over the Old. Whether you like it or not, Deuteronomic verses advocating the stoning of children for heresy are just as canonical as those detailing Jesus’ shenanigans with loaves and fishes. A lot of modern day liberal Christians operate under the delusion that Jesus said something which somehow nullified all the unpleasant bits of the Old Testament. He didn’t.

    Whenever people have something bad to say about Christianity, they always site 3 things: Crusades, Inquisition, and the Old Testament. And each is expressly denounced in the New Testament.

    At no point is mosaic law denounced in the New Testament. Indeed, Jesus himself supposedly avowed to fulfil it in full (Matt- 5:17)

    Moreover, at no point is torture explicitely disavowed either. What is made emphatically clear is that unbelievers are damned to hell (Matt- 3:10-12, Mark- 16:16, Luke- 12:5, John- 3:36).

    Yes, these verses contradict others in the New Testament but that’s just the nature of the beast. The Old and New Testaments are stuffed full of contradictions and internal inconsistencies, which proves my point that it’s impossible to wring a coherent ethic from their pages.

    It is entirely unsurprising that the Crusades and the Inquisition were fruits of Christianity, given the reams of intolerance found within the Bible’s pages.

    There are two great examples. Communist China and the USSR. Both were atheistic societies based upon the great idea that all people should share equally. What do we see? That the party leaders rise to the top, the bottom people are horribly abused, and equality is entirely up to the state.

    Both reject religion. Both derived a moral basis directly from anthropoligic society study. And both systems were abominably brutal.

    And both systems were, like the systems of the worlds organised religions, utterly devoid of reason.

    Take the Nazis, for example. Heinrich Himmler genuinely believed that the Aryan race was descended from aliens, and that the earliest aliens had spent thousands of years frozen in ice cores in the North Pole. He even set up a meteorological division of the Reich to test this ice theory.

    Josef Stalin genuinely believed that plants were innately socialist, and he sent scientists to the gulag for doubting the bogus “socialist biology” of Lysenko.

    My point is that these guys were not the kings of reason. In fact, their fanatical insistence on subjugating realityy to ideology finds parallels only in the great monotheistic religions.

    Besides, the fact that these societies were atheistic doesn’t necessarily mean that the atrocities they perpetrated could all be blamed on atheism. There are a great many largely atheistic societies in the world today which are among the healthiest in the world. By contrast, it is trivially easy to tie religious violence to religious doctrine.

    Bottom line: No society every suffered because its people became too reasonable, and too desirous to have their beliefs substantiated by empirical evidence.

    Well our belief that such dismemberment is wrong flows from a contemporary view of Western society that was largely influenced by a Christian moral standard.

    There are numerous problems with this.

    1) Contrary to the ravings of the fundamentalists, the world did not begin with Adam and Eve. Christianity was predated by numerous societies, all of which took a dim view of child disembowelment.

    2) The sad fact is that the Bible can’t even give us clear moral direction on the question of whether it is morally wrong to kill children. Consider the following verses:

    Psalm 137:9 “Happy shall he be, who takes and dashes your little ones against the rock.

    2Kings 2:23-25 “23 He went up from there to Bethel, and while he was going up on the way, some small boys came out of the city and jeered at him, saying, “Go up, you baldhead! Go up, you baldhead!” 24 And he turned around, and when he saw them, he cursed them in the name of the Lord. And two she-bears came out of the woods and tore forty-two of the boys. 25 From there he went on to Mount Carmel, and from there he returned to Samaria.”

    If an alien visited earth with just a Bible to guide him, and he were subsequently quizzed on such perplexing moral quandaries as the proper ethical status of child murder, he wouldn’t be able to give a straight answer.

    How could such a fundamentally useless book possibly provide a sound basis for an objective morality?

  6. 6 Doc
    September 19, 2006 at 3:56 am

    So what? Firstly, it’s facile in the extreme to ask me to find condemnations of Islamic doctrine in the letters of a man who predated Mohammed by about 600 years.

    Miss the point much?

    You have nothing. Nothing in the New Testament that even remotely comes close to the barbarism adopted by Islam. Your evidence is completely lacking. In addition, you show your utter ignorance of Christianity with this nonsense:

    Secondly, there exists no Biblical standard by which to ascertain the superiority of the New Testament over the Old. Whether you like it or not, Deuteronomic verses advocating the stoning of children for heresy are just as canonical as those detailing Jesus’ shenanigans with loaves and fishes.

    Yes, they are so canonical that it happens on a routine basis. Moron.

    Jesus came to fulfill the law. The Old Testament is abrogated in the New Testament. I’m not circumcized. I don’t eat kosher. Why? Because I’m not beholden to the laws of the Old Testament.

    What are the commandments as laid out by Jesus? Love thy God and Love thy Neighbor. Case closed. That’s why you don’t find violence at the core of Christianity, because it’s antitheitcal to the entire dogma. Crusades, Inquisitions– these practices were not carried out in accordance to the teachings of Jesus.

    Now, if you can’t find an actual written word in the New Testament that says something along the lines of “slay the infidel”, then I suggest you abandon your insane rhetoric.

    Yes, these verses contradict others in the New Testament but that’s just the nature of the beast. The Old and New Testaments are stuffed full of contradictions and internal inconsistencies, which proves my point that it’s impossible to wring a coherent ethic from their pages.

    Of COURSE you’re going to find contradictions between the OT and NT. Christianity is not Judaism. I thought that was clear when the concept of “spare ribs” was introduced into Christian culture.

    And both systems were, like the systems of the worlds organised religions, utterly devoid of reason.

    I’m going to call bullshit right here. Reason, specifically philosophic reasoning, was the exact basis of the revolutions in China and the USSR. Everyone gets a fair shake. How is that unreasonable? How is having a centralized governemnt redistributing wealth so everyone has a equal share unreasonable? You call it irrational but offer no proof. The proof is the the huamnist system descended into an irrational system because it was implemented by men, who are imperfect. The same thing can be said for religions, as those, too, are controlled by men.

    Bottom line: No society every suffered because its people became too reasonable, and too desirous to have their beliefs substantiated by empirical evidence.

    And the evidence of this is where? Has such a society existed? Your argument is that an atheistic, reason-based society is superior to one with morals fashioned from a religious background. And I gave you two examples where the very system you espouse has led to corruption and slaughter.

    To put your trust in man-made establishments, even establishments of reason, does not grant them immunity to the failings of man. Every single institution man has devised has had a failing because of the frailities of the human. To think a society of reason will not suffer the same fate is delusion in the extreme.

  7. 7 Dave
    September 20, 2006 at 6:25 pm

    You are, unfortunately, seriously confused. You said, “Your argument is that an atheistic, reason-based society is superior to one with morals fashioned from a religious background.”

    You want to stand the “reason-based society” against the “religious, moral society”, and compare the two, one man-made, and one based on god. But if the humanists and the secularists are right (and they are either objectively right, or wrong — god either exists, or doesn’t, completely apart from whether we want or need or believe him to exist), then your god-based society and god-based morals are ALSO man-made, and always have been.

    And all the good of all those societies, and the religions, and the moral and ethical standards, and even all those chorales by Bach, are all the works of man.

    Of course, you may be right about god. But if you’re wrong and the atheists are right, then the USSR and China are evil because men made them so, and Western morals are good BECAUSE MEN MADE THEM SO.

    Humans, with their reason, hammering out a moral code, with great difficulty and at great expense, over thousands of years, with innumerable misteps down blind alleys, errors, and reversals, but ultimately producing something of incomparable value for all mankind.

    IF (and I stress — IF) the atheists are right, and they are either right or wrong as a matter of FACT, then this conclusion is inescapable.

    And so your setting of an atheistic society against one with religious morals is, I think, a false dichotomy, because if the atheist is right, they are actually BOTH atheist societies. It’s just that one of them doesn’t happen to know it.

  8. 8 Doc
    September 20, 2006 at 10:11 pm

    then your god-based society and god-based morals are ALSO man-made, and always have been…

    Of course, you may be right about god. But if you’re wrong and the atheists are right, then the USSR and China are evil because men made them so, and Western morals are good BECAUSE MEN MADE THEM SO.

    Regardless of origin, the morals of the two systems are very much different. One infuses a moral system with the intention of reaching perfection by emulating perfection. The other moral system uses a man made center of reason, but immediately defeats itself with the admission that man is not perfect. The secularist society then holds up an imperfect standard, and in doing so, sabotages any morality which may flow from the standard as its admittely inherently flawed.

  9. 9 Anonymous
    September 21, 2006 at 9:27 pm

    I just have to respond to Anonymous, who seems to blame God for all the mortal suffering in the world because he kicked humanity out of the Garden of Eden.

    We have been gifted with free will. Adam and Eve chose to sin. Their decendents live with the consequences.

    If you chose to stop working, and your children went hungry, would you blame your former employer for not feeding them? Not a perfect analogy, but you get the idea.


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My name is Doc. Welcome to my blog. If you're visiting from another blog, add me to your blogroll (and I'll happily reciprocate). I have a Ph.D. in Chemistry and live in Wisconsin. If you have any questions, feel free to email me. My email is docattheautopsy at gmail. (No linking to deflate the incredible spam monsters).

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