Saturday, March 21, 2015

Pascal Lectures: How to Arrive at the Conclusion You Want

I attended the second Pascal Lecture given by Dr. John Lennox. It was entitled, "Do Science and Miracles Mix?" I got very little out of this lecture. The best I can gather is this... The laws of nature are like the laws of the country; they don't always have to be obeyed. He repeated his joke about some money missing from his hotel-room bedside table, asking if the laws of nature were broken, or the laws of Canada.

He pointed out that inference doesn’t give us any certain knowledge. Moreover, if the human brain is a result of natural laws, then we can’t trust its conclusion that such natural laws cannot be broken. Too bad he didn't get around to answering the question I posed the previous night, "Just because the mind cannot be trusted (as it's a product of nature), why would one assume that it doesn't have ANY useful thoughts?" That would have helped a lot.

I was expecting to hear advice on how to weigh the evidence of miracles against alternative explanations. Instead, we were taught that once you see enough of what you want to see, that’s sufficient. To those who DO know about human psychology, this is called “confirmation bias”.

He demonstrated by example, illustrating some delusional contortions when he talked about the immaculate conception of John the Baptist, referring to Luke 1. Suppose you are given a story about immaculate conception.

Option 1: The explanation of adultery -- while unsavoury -- fits with our observations of pretty much every primate species, including humans. If you think of us as animals (as our common biology with the great apes would suggest) then it all makes sense. Discard this theory.

Option 2: Or, you can do like Dr. Lennox and take the wishful-thinking approach, latching onto "hints" that the immaculate conception is true. That is, you can suppose there is an imaginary line drawn in the roughly 5% of DNA that separates us from the chimps, and helpfully conclude that our motivations come from a magical man in the sky, while all other animals are simply meat robots. This theory is preferred.

If you ask me, option 2 is the ultimate in self-centred ignorance. But then again, not everyone wants to face the possibility that their wife might have cheated on them. Some would rather be deluded.

He said something to the effect of, "You can trust your reason, or use it. I prefer to trust my God, but use my reason." Too bad that using your reason about God would corner you into many logical contradictions.

The talk followed the familiar pattern of being front-loaded with technical-sounding content, but finished off with emotionally-laden stories and testimonies.

Dr. Lennox shared with us his own miracle. He was on a train, and gave a Russian Bible he happened to have to some Russian people. It turns out they appreciated it. Really?! That's IT?! He qualifies it with "I leave you to judge." Okay, if I'm the judge... major FAIL!

During the question period, he addressed the scary consequences of what society will be like without the influence of Christianity. He said, "Just wait a year, and we'll see." He said that new laws go against the law of God, and that you can get any morality you like by studying animals. This is just an empty scare tactic for the feeble-minded.

He said he's asked his scientist friends, "Why don't you believe in God." He claims it has nothing to do with science, and everything to do with experience. In other words, "Silly scientist friend, you can't just WILL yourself to believe in God. You have to hand control over to your emotions for that. Let your subcortical limbic system (common to all mammals) dictate your worldview, just like squirrels do."

We were invited to submit questions via SMS text messages. I submitted one,
Are you familiar with recent research on the fallibility of memory? How can we put so much weight on a form of testimony that has been shown to falsely convict many people, even over a time span of hours or days?
I'll take it as a miracle that neither of the questions I posed (over the two talks I attended) were addressed.

Full disclosure: My opinions here might have been amplified by the audiobook I'm currently listening to, "The Witness Wore Red" by Rebecca Musser. It exposes the patriarchal, dictatorial control tactics and abuses of the polygamous Mormons, the FLDS. Great book if you want to see how religion can distort and manipulate. If not... well, you know what to do.

1 comment:

  1. (Got here from Jeff Shallit's blog)

    Nitpick: Did you possibly mis-hear Lennox re "the immaculate conception of John the Baptist"? Was he referring to the virgin birth of Jesus? Because those are two different things, about two different people (though both stories appear in Luke 1).

    The gory details, if you care (ie. according to the Biblical account and general Christian belief):
    1) The birth of John the Baptist is supposed to be special because his mother was elderly, but AFAIK he was conceived in the normal way.
    2) Mary was a virgin and Jesus' conception and birth was a miracle. However.....
    3) ....the Virgin Birth is *not* the same as the Immaculate Conception, which is a specifically Catholic dogma about Mary (not Jesus, and still less John the Baptist). According to this dogma, God miraculously prevented Mary from being tainted by Original Sin (which is a heritable characteristic, by mechanisms unspecified) at the time she was conceived. Only thus could she be a worthy vessel to subsequently carry the Incarnate God.

    Yes, it's all bullshit, but if we're going to use the terms we should at least try to keep them straight. Otherwise Conrad Black might say something pompously dismissive about us ;-).