Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Stephen C. Meyer has it wrong

Dr. Stephen C. Meyer is the director of the Discovery Institute's Centre for Science and Culture, and is a regular guest on the Michael Medved Show's weekly Science & Culture Update (that should probably be "weakly Science..."). It's a show where Michael proclaims that America is the "greatest country on God's green earth", and they moan about how big-science is bullying intelligent design (ID), and that science is closed-minded because it limits itself to only natural causes. People call in desperately trying to educate Dr. Meyer on why ID is not science. It amazes me that Dr. Meyer has a Ph.D. from Cambridge in Philosophy of Science, and yet can't see how allowing magic into the scientific discourse would cause problems.

He insists that ID is not just a negative case of pointing how evolution is an insufficient explanation, but that ID is a positive scientific statement, "based on what we know, not on what we don't know". He says,
there is a cause of which we know that is capable of building the kind of information that we see arising in the history of life, in the Cambrian period, for example. And that cause is intelligence.
Dr. Meyer likes to say that he bases his conclusions on a standard method of scientific reasoning, called "inference to the best explanation".
Darwin had a principle of reasoning that he also used which was called the vera causa principle. The idea is that when you're trying to explain an event in the remote past you should look for causes that are now in operation, causes that are known to produce the effect in question. Well, as I was studying that in graduate school I asked myself the question, What is the cause now in operation that produces digital code, that produces circuitry? And the answer from our uniform and repeated experience is intelligence.
From that, he concludes that an intelligent being created life and the universe.

Here's the problem. According to his logic, we should conclude that humans created life and the universe, since our uniform and repeated experience tells us that humans create digital code and circuitry. We certainly have no uniform and repeated experience of gods creating digital code. Nor do we have any uniform and repeated experience of unembodied intelligent agents designing circuits. Just humans.

So, by Dr. Meyer's logic, we should conclude that humans created life and the universe. Done.

You'll be relieved to hear that this logic is faulty. No, you are not responsible for creating yourself and all your friends.

Dr. Meyer implies that the best explanation of the order we see in the universe is intelligence. But why is that the best explanation? Who says? I admit that it's satisfying in an intuitive sense... we deal with intelligent agents all the time (other people), so what's the problem with adding just one more?

However, the universe is not there to satisfy our intuitions. It can contradict our intuitions quite happily, thank you very much. So, intuitions aside, how might we gauge a good vs. bad explanation? Probability. The most probable explanation could be considered the best explanation.

Question: What is the probability that an unembodied, timeless intelligent agent created the universe and designed the life therein?

Answer: Hard to say, since we really have no basis for comparison.

Question: What is the probability that humans mistakenly believe the universe was created by an intelligent agent?

Answer: Well, on this topic we have lots of data. Human psychology is full of examples of delusion, many of them clearly anthropomorphic in nature. Humans used to believe that thunder and lightning were the gods getting angry. Those who believe they've seen aliens usually draw them as humanoid. Look at all the different religions, each with its own human-like god (or gods). It's clear that humans are susceptible to anthropomorphic delusions.

Darwin showed us that information and design can emerge by natural causes.

So, what is your inference to the best explanation? A magic, invisible, unembodied, intelligent creator? Or the operation of natural causes, viewed through a distorted human lens?

Friday, May 17, 2013

Discovery Institute's Wet Dream

I've been listening to I, Charles Darwin on the podcast Intelligent Design the Future. It's a novella written by Nickell John Romjue. The premise is interesting, that Charles Darwin is magically brought back to the world to see how his theory changed history. He tours through space and time, and -- of course -- concludes that modern science has it all wrong.

I disagree with the book's portrayal of Darwin. It puts words in his mouth, words that he would never say, in my humble opinion.

For example, when he finds out about the Nazi holocaust, he's sad that his theory of evolution by natural selection has lead to eugenics.

Yah, his theory lead to eugenics in the same sense that particle physics lead to the atomic bomb. The science is not the problem. Sociopolitical policy is the problem. Science doesn't make bombs; people make bombs.

The whole series is a wet dream for those who don't want to believe in evolution. It's like me writing a book in which Jesus comes back to Earth and says, "Hey man, I was just joking! I'm not the son of God. There is no god!"

Based on his books, I would expect Darwin to be an atheist if he were alive today. He posited that because all living things are related, they differ only in degrees, not in fundament. His book The Descent of Man was even more direct, applying the theory of evolution to humans. It outlines the ways in which humans are animals, and how our evolutionary heritage shaped what we are today. This is a message that many religious people do NOT want to hear because it contradicts the explanations offered by holy books.

The novella, I, Charles Darwin is simply a wishful-thinking propaganda tool for the religious right-wing. It's pure fiction.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Debunking Douglas Groothuis' Argument

On April 5, 2013, Jeff Shallit pointed out a blog post by Douglas Groothuis, a Professor of Philosophy at Denver Seminary. Prof. Groothuis' post was entitled "A Moral Case Against Darwinism". Here is an executive summary of Prof. Groothuis' argument.
  1. If evolution is true, then there is no philosophical basis for objective and universal human rights
Admittedly, the full argument is longer, but unnecessarily so, in my opinion. I actually agree with that statement.

But then he continues, asserting that statement (1) above is false. What I think he means is that the conclusion is false, since he says there IS a philosophical basis for objective and universal human rights.

And according to the rules of logic,
Given A->B
And ~B
We conclude ~A
In other words, the premise evolution is true is incorrect, and we conclude that evolution is false.

His rationale for rejecting the conclusion is that
Our moral intuitions and the history of Western law treat every human being, irrespective of race, as possessing intrinsic human dignity and must be treated as such.
It's true, we tend to have such intuitions and laws. But it does not negate the conclusion. Laws about equality are not a definitive philosophical basis for objective and universal human rights. Such laws can exist despite there being no philosophical basis.

And that leads me to my second point. Prof. Groothuis actually claims that an if-then statement is false. The logical negation of an if-then statement A->B is (A and ~B). That is, A is true, but B is false. This is basic logic.

Negating statement (1) means that evolution is true and there IS a philosophical basis for human rights.

However, I highly doubt that's what Groothuis means, since he's trying to show that evolution is false.

I submitted a comment to his blog, but unfortunately Prof. Groothuis said he "can't find the comments to post them". I guess things have changed since January 17th when he did post the comments on his blog.

So I thought I'd help him out by posting my own critique on my own blog. I wonder if Prof. Groothuis will respond on his blog?

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Intelligent Design - Is it science?

I'm so excited about this talk scheduled for Thursday March 28, 5:30pm. The lecture is organized by AAFW, the Atheists, Agnostics and Freethinkers of Waterloo.

Prof. Jonathan Witt will be speaking. He is a professor in biology.

You can find out more on the facebook event page.

Will I see you there?

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

God and Reason part 8: "The Next Step"

I attended the 8th, and last lecture of the God and Reason course. This one was focussed on "The Next Step". Prof. John North spoke again, and his talk was very easy to listen to, very engaging.

The talk was really a bunch of stories tied together with a few concepts. That's a great way to get a message across... I really want to learn from these. But the appropriateness of that style depends, perhaps, on what your message is. If your goal is to outline a sequence of facts in the derivation of a proof, then the stories -- while entertaining -- will slow you down too much. But if your goal is to convey a more intuitive message, stories are the way to go.

And that leads me to my overall impression of this lecture series.

It seems obvious now that the series was not meant as a scientific or critical appraisal of Christianity, but rather as an exercise in persuasion. The talks tended to be short statements of opinion interleaved with emotionally-charged stories, sprinkled with scant cherry-picked facts thrown in for good measure. This is not how we discover truth, but rather an effective way to sway opinion. In many respects, they might as well have been up there extolling the virtues of Coca Cola over Pepsi. Really! Just swap out any reference to the Bible or God, and replace each with something about secret recipes and personal taste.

Here is an example of the persuasive argument. Prof. North started to push our guilt button in this talk. He made everyone feel guilty for having so much opportunity (yes, we are lucky to live in Canada). He told a story about Ethiopian Christians trying to escape through Sudan, some being caught in Egypt and sent to be tortured. He said that we are all guilty of sin and that without forgiveness guilt will destroy us. He offered no evidence for that assertion, but merely stated it as incontrovertible fact. The solution, according to Prof. North, is to give yourself to Jesus, since the only punishment big enough for our sins is Jesus' death on the cross.

The Ethiopian story is very scary, true. But what does it have to do with the question of God's existence? If anything, that story tells me that we need to stop people from seeing the world through the lens of their own religion. We all share a common humanity. We do NOT all share the same religion.

It is my understanding that a public university like Waterloo should exercise critical thinking in all of its sanctioned activities. This course did not achieve that standard. Instead, it was an exercise in persuasion, promoting a single ideology. This is a course I'd happily fail.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

God and Reason part 7: "Could there be just one true religion?”

Distribution of religions
Wayne Brodland spoke again, and explained that his focus would be on 4 of the main world religions: Islam, Hinduism, Christianity, and what he called "Just-do-it-yourself-ism" (basically, a catch-all category for those who don't take orders from a god or gods).

He went over the various possibilities:

  1. All religions are true
  2. Several religions are true
  3. One religion is true
  4. No religions are true
He pointed out that 1 cannot be the case, since many religions categorically contradict each other. He gave the example of Islam (only one god) vs Hinduism (many gods).

Then he addressed option 2, that several of the religions could be true. In this case, one could build a set of religions that are logically consistent (don't contradict each other). But, as it turns out many religions have exclusivity assertions, like "No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6). So even option 2 seems infeasible.

So we're left with options 3 and 4, that there is only one true religion, or all religions are false.

Concerning option 4, that all religions are false, Prof. Brodland offerred the rock-hard evidence that it "seems improbable to me."

So option 3 it is! Now which religion is the one true religion?

Prof. Brodland brought up the claim that he treats his religious beliefs with the same critical rigour as his scientific beliefs.

A couple times, Prof. Brodland pointed out that God gives us enough evidence that we should follow him, but not so much that we are logically forced to. I find this argument silly, like shooting an arrow into the side of a barn and drawing a target around it. There will always be assertions that are difficult to resolve as true or false. All one has to do is plant their god neatly in the middle of it. And as science resolves some of these questions, religions that don't update their god's opinions get tossed into the rubbish-bin of history; the earth revolves around the sun, the universe is billions of years old, lightning is electricity.

Prof. Brodland then gave us his reasons for why he is a Christian.
  1. His observations of the beauty and order in the world are compelling.
  2. The credibility of the Bible. Here he compared the Bible to a peer-reviewed journal.
  3. Dialog between us and God
  4. Personal experiences
  5. Best explanation for fitting the pieces together
I really don't know what he means by 3, so I won't touch it. Numbers 1 and 4 are utterly subjective, so don't apply to me or anyone else. I addressed the credibility of the Bible in a previous post; in my opinion (as an outsider), the Bible is no more credible than any other holy text. And as for number 5, I disagree emphatically. I think there are much more objectively sound, and interesting explanations for religious beliefs and the evolution of religion.

He pointed out that even in science, we can't always build a water-tight case. That's true. Technically speaking, we can't prove anything scientifically. But we can disprove things. That's because proper scientific claims are falsifiable. 

During the question period, I asked if he agreed that many of the claims made by religions are unfalsifiable. He more-or-less agreed. The reason I asked was because I find it ridiculous that a critical thinker can claim to have weighed the evidence of their religion against others, and found that their religion is the best of them all. All religions make unfalsifiable claims. And how - exactly - does one decide which unfalsifiable claim is more true than the others? You can't... that's the problem with unfalsifiable claims.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

God and Reason part 6: "Who was Jesus?"

Today's speaker was Wayne Brodland, a Professor of Civil Engineering whose specialty is the mechanics of living tissues. I've encountered his work before, and was impressed. And he is - as are all the speakers in this series - an award-winning teacher.

He started his talk drawing a parallel between how he approaches his lab work, and how he approaches his Christian faith. He said that he uses the same processes to discover truth in both arenas. It's a cycle involving data, theory, testing, critical analysis, and reformulation.

Prof. Brodland asked, "How do we collect data?" He showed a slide that looked something like this:
We collect data through our senses (and related instruments). For this, we use our bodies. We use logic, which he attributes to the soul (though he conceded that the brain is involved). The vertical arrow labelled "Methodological Naturalism" indicates which types of data are acceptable in science.

He said we also get data from revelation, through the Bible. He says this gives the religious an additional source of information, an advantage. Does that mean that religious people have the upper-hand on truth and reality? Not so fast.

Prof. Brodland then went into a pseudo-statistical hypothesis test.
Hypothesis: Jesus rose from the dead.
Null Hypothesis: Jesus did not rise from the dead.
He offered three lines of evidence in opposition to the null hypothesis: the empty tomb, witness accounts, and the changed attitudes of Jesus' followers. All of the arguments were based on assumptions as tenuous as the hypothesis itself: reports that people saw Jesus after his death, the alleged absence of corrections to the story, the motivation of the Jews to keep the body in custody, the choice of the disciples to continue Jesus' teachings even though it exposed them to horrific treatment. He said these all refute the null hypothesis. Hence, Jesus most likely rose from the dead. QED

During the question period, I (again) brought up the point that witness testimony is well known to be problematic (many people claim to have seen Elvis after his death). The truth of these Bible stories relies heavily, HEAVILY on witness testimony. Moreover, it is obvious that motivated theologians could have contributed their own spin in the intervening centuries.

Prof. Brodland answered that the current gold-standard for evidence in the court room is witness testimony. He said it's the best evidence we have. I disagree. Eyewitness testimony should NOT be the gold-standard. Physical evidence (DNA, fingerprints, textile fibers) is more objective and quantifiable.

Wayne shared with us a story of when he suddenly lost his hearing, and the doctors didn't know why. He told us the doctors expected it was due to neurological damage, and would not improve. Prof. Brodland and his friends prayed for his hearing to return, and after some time it improved. Wayne's conclusion? God fixed his hearing. This is an excellent example of the correlation vs. causation logical fallacy. They prayed, then his hearing returned.

I was going to challenge Prof. Brodland on this interpretation, but Jeff Shallit beat me to it. And a good thing... amazingly, Jeff said that he had a very similar episode of hearing loss. The doctors didn't know the cause. But his hearing came back... even though he didn't pray. Spontaneous remission does occur. (read Jeff's perspective)

Prof. Brodland said that he didn't know Jeff's medical history, but he knew his own. When Jeff tried to respond, Wayne cut him off and said, "It's a personal story, and that's just the way it is."

I can appreciate that losing one's hearing is traumatic. But I can almost guarantee that Prof. Brodland does not treat his religious sensibilities the same way he treats his lab. Confusing correlation with causation would get you laughed out of the peer-review process. It's an amateur mistake to make. And I expect Wayne would not tolerate it in his lab work.

Wayne repeated that personal experiences were strong pieces of evidence for him. For him. Well, what are we supposed to do with that, if it only applies to him? A subjective proof is no proof at all. It might as well be a story about gnomes and unicorns.

He said it's like grandma's cookies, you have to taste them to understand how good they are. I guess he's suggesting we all get hooked on heroine so we can understand, first hand, what is so compelling to turn good people into junkies. Who wants to go first?

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Open-Book Exams

My class had its midterm exam today. It was open-book, so I allowed them to take their lecture notes, assignments and solutions, and 2 textbooks of their choosing. In the past, while describing this open-book policy to the class, I've mentioned that they can bring any book they want, even if it's not about image processing. And many of the students take it upon themselves to try to choose the most outlandish books they can think of.

This course I'm teaching is online; I don't lecture the students face-to-face. Instead, they watch pre-recorded videos. So I don't think I emphasized the "any-book-of-your-choosing" idea. But I was pleasantly surprised at today's midterm when I saw titles like Cooking for Geeks, The Dilbert Principle, some book on political science, and The Book of Mormon, among others.

Well played, students. Well played.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

God and Reason Part 5: "Is the Bible Reliable?"

Prof. David Matthews spent some time discussing the timeline for the Bible's composition, pointing out that most of the books of the new testament were written about 65 - 100 years CE (Christian Era... after Jesus was born). Then, the elapsed time from the events until the earliest Bible was about 300 years. He compared that to the Iliad (about 500 years), and Herodotus (about 1300 years). From this, I suppose we are to favour the historical accuracy of the Bible.

I had a chance to ask a question. I said that if the age of a holy text is used as a measure of factual confidence, then the Book of Mormon and Dianetics must be even better than the Bible.

A self-described atheist in the audience pointed out that the vast majority of Biblical scholars believe that the gospels were anonymously written, even though they were attributed to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Prof. Matthews basically had no response. Then Prof. Robert Mann chimed in and claimed that the debate was more even-sided... I don't know who to believe on this point.

Prof. Matthews also told us that the gospels mention many secondary details about towns, people, events and buildings that were later confirmed independently. He gave the example of the Pool of Bethesda.

To cap off the argument and assert that the authors of the Bible must have told the truth, Prof. Matthews asked why they would subject themselves to persecution and death just to preserve what they knew to be false?

It's like asking, "How can Islam be wrong when suicide bombers are willing to give up their lives to be martyrs?" Holy wars are groups of people with incompatible religious beliefs killing each other. They can't both be right. Yet they both feel right.

My main question, though, was about how far personal testimony can take us. It is becoming progressively undeniable that eyewitness testimony, even after a few hours, can be horribly inaccurate. The work of psychologist Elizabeth Loftus shows us how precarious our memories are. In a 2003 Nature Reviews Neuroscience paper, she wrote,

Many influences can cause memories to change or even be created anew, including our imaginations and the leading questions or different recollections of others. The knowledge that we cannot rely on our memories, however compelling they might be, leads to questions about the validity of criminal convictions that are based largely on the testimony of victims or witnesses.

In other words, even if someone swears up-and-down that event X occurred, we should take it with a grain of salt. Confidence in one's recollection should not be mistaken for accuracy.

Then throw in other cognitive biases, like subjective validation and confirmation bias (here is a larger list), and a motivated person can come up with just about any story they need to.

I concede that the Bible probably DOES contain many historically accurate facts. But the facts that form the foundation of Christianity -- that Jesus is the son of God, that he performed miracles, that he rose from the dead, etc. -- were not the focus of Prof. Matthew's talk. But it is exactly THOSE extraordinary claims that require extraordinary evidence. And I don't consider decades-old testimony of a handful of witnesses who are all pushing the same ideology to be extraordinary evidence.

The more I hear about it, the more it seems like religious texts are just collections of stories with enough variety that people can find support for whatever beliefs they happen to espouse.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

God and Reason part 4: "Doesn't the church produce hypocrites and injustices?"

It's taken me a couple days to find the time to write this blog post. Largely because I didn't really find anything objectionable. Actually, I didn't find much at all in the talk.

This 4th talk was given by Prof. David Matthews (no, not the musician, but the statistics prof). As I've come to expect, the talk was well delivered by a thoughtful and experienced speaker.

However, I found the talk to be devoid of any content. To go back to the question, "Doesn't the church produce hypocrites and injustices?", Prof. Matthews says yes. He gave examples of religious people being hypocrites (Peter).

He said we are all guilty, and described the church as a hospital for sinners. He posted the quote by General Norman Schwartzkopf,
The truth of the matter is that you always know the right thing to do. The hard part is doing it.
I don't think it's that simple. Indeed, the problem only exists for those who believe that there is a strictly-defined right and wrong. According to whom?, I ask. Everyone has competing drives. But to label a bunch of our intrinsic desires as sinful is a strategy that religions have evolved to keep their followers coming back. Check out my blog post and interview with Dr. Darrel Ray about his book The God Virus.

Prof. Matthews spent a lot of time talking about grace. On this point he became quite emotional. I admire that. But since grace was not really defined, all it amounted to was people interpreting what they wanted to interpret, backed up by emotional oomph.

One of the only messages I could grasp was that trouble arises when the church mixes with politics. Yes, I agree. When one dogma enforces its creeds on others, that's a problem. Prof. Matthews was quick to point out that some non-religious regimes also ran into trouble trying to push ideology down people's throats; he gave the examples of Russia under Stalin, and Cambodia.

During the question period, I asked why highly secular societies such as Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Finland are superior according to many measures of societal happiness. He pointed out that each had a history of religion, and he said that their success is a legacy of that ideological foundation. So I pointed out that we should see a decline in their happiness in the near future, to which he replied "not necessarily". It's true that cause and effect is almost impossible to establish, but I think I made my point. Prof. Matthews reiterated that mixing religion and politics causes problems, and pointed out that the Taliban banned the flying of kits, and that music was banned by Muslims in Mali.

I agree, so I don't see what his point is. If it's that religion is fine as long as it does not influence public policy, then I'm on board. But that's not usually how it plays out. Counter-examples include gay marriage, birth control, abortion, and apparently music and kites.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

God and Reason Part 3: "The Problem of Pain"

The speaker this week was Prof. John North. He's been at the University for over 40 years now. That surprised me. Though he and I did cross paths during my undergrad days. My girlfriend and I, along with some other friends, were going to rent a house he owned. We all agreed, and returned to our co-op jobs. However, a few months later we called to confirm, and he decided to rent it to someone else. We were pretty pissed.

Prof. North is a great, impassioned speaker. More of a preacher, really. Very loud at times, and then suddenly quiet. He certainly had my attention.

His talk, however, had little of substance for someone like me. Rather than a scholarly, persuasive argument, it seemed more of an emotional plea. And emotional it was. At times, it seemed Prof. North was on the verge of tears. Not surprisingly, since he told us of his experiences as a volunteer Chaplain at the Grand River Hospital. He estimates that he's visited over 800 dying patrons in his 27 years of service.

His arguments for the function of pain were weak, and half-hearted. He spoke more in metaphors than in defensible clarity.

He told the Bible story of Lazarus and Dives. Dives was rich, and ate like a king every day. Lazarus was poor, and survived on the discarded scraps from Dives' table. But they both died, and - of course - Dives ended up in Hell, and Lazarus ended up in Heaven. Dives begged Abraham to have Lazarus bring him just a drop of water. But Abraham said it couldn't be done.

What's the moral of the story? If you have lots of money, you should give it to the church to make sure you don't end up like poor Dives.

I agree with Jeff Shallit's assessment of pain. It's a motivator. Your brain actively creates pain as a behavioural mechanism. And I agree with Jeff that there is nothing noble about enduring pain for no reason. Pain has no cosmic rationale. Suffering is not in service of some greater good. Pain is your way of making the best of a bad situation. The universe never said anything about fairness. In fact, fairness is a construct invented by social species.

Much of Prof. North's talk was an affirmation of his faith, describing how he sees his religion, and laying out the passages that he finds most compelling.

His speech was moving. But emotion is not the same thing as reality. I find music can make me very emotional. But I don't worship music, or think it controls the universe. My brain is a machine, and if I pull the right strings, I can induce a feeling of awe, and wonder, and reverence. Of course, drugs can do this for you too. Perhaps religion is addictive in this sense.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

God and Reason Part 2: "Does God Exist?"

The lecture started out with "Welcome to Christianity 101". Wait, I thought it was called "God and Reason". Why not use the misnomer "Reason 101"? It's because this lecture series is in the business of motivated reasoning, and Christianity is the desired conclusion.

It was Robert Mann speaking again. I failed to mention in my previous post how good he is at speaking, though Jeff Shallit remembered. Prof. Mann was engaging and animated. I can see why he's won teaching awards.

That's not to say his lecture made a whole lot of sense to me.

He talked a lot about knowledge bootstrapping. About how we observe the world, and make inferences about how it works. But then those inferences sway how we gain more knowledge. He gave the examples of the fractional charge of quarks, and the wave/particle duality of light. But I had trouble understanding how - exactly - they illustrated the point. Basically, we have no method for attaining knowledge with 100% certainty.

I agree with him that we can't know anything about the world for sure. Yes, we can prove theorems in the insular world of mathematics, but we have no way to prove that the basic axioms of mathematics have any bearing on how the world works.

So can we make progress? Almost certainly. Science is about discovering patterns in nature. We don't have any guarantees, but there seems to be a lot of regularity in the universe. Once we gain confidence in a set of observations (that they are repeatable), then we form a theory to represent that new knowledge. That theory is tested against new observations, and if it holds up, science agrees that this is the best understanding that we have. And all the while, in the backs of our minds we know that the theory could be wrong. There simply is no way, in principle, that we can be absolutely sure.

Back to Prof. Mann's talk. He proclaimed three aspects to Occam's Razor,
  1. Simplicity: "All else being equal, the simplest explanation is the most likely."
  2. Credulity: "All else being equal, things probably are as they seem."
  3. Testimony: "All else being equal, things probably are as reported."
Occam's razor is really just a back-of-the-envelop way of assessing the relative likelihoods of competing theories, and is usually only used in the context of item 1 above. I don't see the purpose for points 2 and 3, since they should both be included in the first point. But this list IS a way of making all three seem like they are on equal footing. As if to say that testimony is as compelling as simplicity. In the context of "Christianity 101", the message is that it's OK to put stock in someone's subjective experience, even if it contradicts some laws of physics (eg. miracles).

Prof. Mann didn't really talk about whether God exists. In my final analysis, it seemed Prof. Mann's take-home message was
We can't know anything for sure, so God seems like as good an explanation as any.
That's not an actual quote, but my distillation. It's like his goal was to open up a crack of doubt about knowledge, and then suggest God is as intellectually sound as any other hypothesis. This view of epistemology brushes over the quantitative aspects of our observations... not all hypotheses are equally valid in light of evidence. In particular, with what we see in human psychology, it's not surprising that people believe in agency behind the universe, in God. We have well-established psychological biases that constantly push us in that direction. These are the same biases that make us compulsive gamblers and angry at our computers. Our best science says that we should be suspicious of our intuitions. That goes a long way in explaining religion.

He repeatedly stated that theology is progressing. With what? Would he agree that Islam is progressing too? I think he means that religious opinions are slowly changing. They are being forced to, by science.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

God and Reason part 1: "Doesn't science disprove Christianity?"

I found out about a free, not-for-credit "course" at my university (hat tip to Recursivity). The course is called "God and Reason", and it "explores and answers basic questions of the Christian faith from an academic point of view." I love this kind of stuff, so I signed up.

I just attended the first lecture. It was entitled "Doesn't Science Disprove Christianity?", given by Prof. Robert Mann, a full Professor in theoretical physics. His main point seemed to be that science addresses the "how" questions, while faith addresses the "why" questions. He made the comparison using these lists:

Science is...Faith is...
what iswhat ought to be
how things workwhy things work
public knowledge    private knowledge

He said that while science and technology can give us cell phones, science is impotent to answer questions like, "Is it OK to use your cell phone in class?" Another example, scientists created the atomic bomb, but weren't able to keep it from doing harm.

He says science informs us of how the universe works, but faith undergirds the values from which we can make such ethics decisions.

I'm afraid I don't see it that way. I felt he was half right. Yes, science helps us to understand our world.

But what does faith have to offer in making policy decisions? During the question period I asked, "What if two different faiths contradict each other on a question of ethics?" His answer... they have to work it out just like things are worked out in science. Umm, that analogy has a problem. Doesn't "working it out" require that the two sides agree on a shared objective reality? Two dogmas in disagreement have nowhere to go - intellectually - except to retreat back to their sacred texts.

Then he pointed out that those people who set off suicide bombs are not necessarily scientifically stupid. Some of them are technically adept. Errr... I wasn't sure where he was going with that.

Prof. Mann talked about the big bang theory and how he felt it pointed to a loving creator. His notion of God was more congruent with a big-bang, created universe than an eternal universe.

But what about a God who created the universe 5 seconds ago, with all the stars in position, and all your memories implanted. That God is equally unfalsifiable. Ditto for the flying spaghetti monster.

That's the problem. Trying to glean knowledge from an unfalsifiable entity is an intellectual wasteland. It's really no different than "Superman can totally beat up Batman". Who's to say?

The climax of the event, for me, was when someone asked Prof. Mann if he desired a future in which quantum physics and relativity merged into a super-theory. He said "Sure!" without hesitation. Then, the same questioner asked if he would favour a future in which Christianity and Islam merged into an encompassing super-religion. I assumed the answer would be an easy "yes". But I was wrong. Prof. Mann was not so decided. But what shocked me was the reaction of the audience members sitting around me. There were snickers, and I heard someone derisively say "how?", and another say "No!" with a huff and a glance at his friends.

Really?! Is it easier to consolidate quantum physics and relativity than Christianity and Islam? It shows that this is not, at base, an intellectual exercise. It's an exercise in self-congratulation for picking the right religion.