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.