An atheist and a creationist walk into an art gallery...

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(Sam Alws, 12/12/22)

An atheist and a creationist walk into an art gallery and look at The Starry Night by Van Gogh...

Atheist: Wow, what a beautiful painting.

Creationist: Yeah, Van Gogh was a real genius.

Atheist: Oh come on, you really believe the intelligent painter theory?

Creationist: don't?

Atheist: Why would I? There's no evidence for it.

Creationist: Yes there is. There's a whole historical record of Van Gogh being a painter.

Atheist: Come on, you need sturdier evidence than that. You haven't seen it being painted yourself, and how could you possibly deduce from first principles that it's been painted?

Creationist: Well, how would the historical records say that Van Gogh was a painter if it wasn't true?

Atheist: They used to believe in alchemy and witches back then, do you believe in those too? You can't trust everything people say. In any case, there are pretty obvious ways that such a folktale could've come to exist. Van Gogh might've found the painting and claimed he painted it to get fame and fortune. Or there could've been no Van Gogh; people could've made up a painting story with a mythical "Van Gogh" character to explain how the painting came into existence.

Creationist: Then how do you think it came into existence?

Atheist: You're the one claiming the existence of a painter, you have the burden of proof to show that he existed. But if you must ask, there's some very interesting research going on, studying scientifically how this painting works.

Creationist: Really? What kind of results have come out of it?

Atheist: Well they've found a few principles that seem to govern what's in the painting. The first is the discrete color principle, which says that there are only 10 colors that take up, with only very slight variation, the whole space of the canvas.

Creationist: ...because Van Gogh used 10 types of paint.

Atheist: Van Gogh this, Van Gogh that. There's no evidence. Anyways, I haven't finished. The next principle is the straight line principle, which says that discrete colors always form nearly-straight continuous lines. The lines all have a width of .5 to 1 inch, and a length of 4 to 20 inches.

Creationist: ...because his paintbrush was an inch thick.

Atheist: Finally we have the color grouping principle, which establishes the likelihoods that lines of one color are adjacent to lines of another. There's a whole 10-by-10 chart out there, but I'll give a few examples: yellow lines nearly always border yellow or orange lines, and never border red lines.

Creationist: I suppose those principles do hold, but there's some imprecision in there. You mentioned that there's "only very slight variation" from the 10 colors, and that the lines are all "nearly straight". Doesn't that make your theory incomplete?

Atheist: Oh, you painterists make this argument all the time. We even have a name for it, "painter in the gaps". You admit that our principles hold, but whenever there's a gap in the theory, you use a made-up painter to explain it away. Art theory has been progressing for years, and the room for a painter in the gaps is getting slimmer and slimmer. Eventually we'll be able to explain the whole painting without exception, and there'll be no room at all for the painter explanation.

Creationist: Okay fine, you make some decent points. But there's something about a painterless painting that feels... off. Like, how did the 10 colors get picked? Or why is it that yellow is next to orange so often?

Atheist: Well, it looks good that way. If a set of rules created a painting that looked ugly, we wouldn't be looking at it in an art gallery right now.

Creationist: So what?

Atheist: So then we wouldn't be having this conversation in the first place.

Creationist: Okay, fine. But... isn't it at least a little odd that it looks like there are houses in the bottom-right corner? And mountains on the right? It seems like he was painting a real scene, in an abstract kind of way.

Atheist: Oh come on, you're grasping at straws at this point.

Creationist: Yeah, you're right. Maybe there really was no painter.

Atheist: Glad you're seeing things a little more clearly. Anyways, let's get going. Our reservation for the Dorsia is in 15 minutes.

Creationist: Great, I'm starving. They really have some amazing chefs over at the Dorsia, don't they?

Atheist: Boy, do I have some news for you...