Monday 27 April 2009

Science & Religion Lectures: Conway Hall, 25th April 2008

I wasn’t planning to blog about this event as I was expecting Martin to be doing another of his fine in-depth live blogs. However, as he hasn’t, I feel duty bound to put fingers to keyboards for a brief summary of the day’s lectures.

I must admit that one of the key speakers that I was most looking forward to hearing was Baroness Mary Warnock, and I joined in with the collective air of disappointment on the announcement that she was unable to make it. Nonetheless Stephen Law once again provided a formidable line-up of fine minds for the days entertainment. I shall give a quick overview of each of the 4 lectures as best I can remember.

1. Jack Cohen

Jack introduced those unfamiliar with the 1857 work of religious biologist Philip Gosse with his explanation of the biblical creation. Gosse’s motivation was for a way of explaining the scientific evidence that is all around us while strictly adhering to the biblical texts he was completely unable to refute.

Most modern day creationists have to reject scientific evidence or invent convoluted excuses to explain how the earth is only 6,000 years old and how dinosaurs and humans coexisted. Gosse’s method is much more elegant in dealing with the evidence, whilst fully accommodating his belief in the word of God scribed verbatim in his preferred religious text. Of course whilst being more elegant it is still utterly bonkers.

Image visiting the Garden of Eden directly after the biblical creation. All of Gods creations are fully formed. A man with developed limbs, bones and hair can be seen along with fully grown trees existing in this mature state since the very start of creation a few moments previous. If you were to cut one of these tree’s in half, you would see the same as we would see today, i.e. a series rings representing previous growing seasons and showing what appears to be evidence for its existence prior to the recent creation event.

In other words, Gosse argues that everything was created with the details of its previous history as if it had existed before its creation. This is were the title of his book “Omphalus” from the Greek for navel, comes from. Many theologians argue that Adam was the first man and as he was not born of woman, he had no need for a navel. However, following Gosse’s hypothesis even though he had no need for his navel, he would have one as part of his inbuilt non existing history that was created along with him.

Jack went on to further explain the hypothesis by giving more examples, and I really enjoyed his bumbling presentation style. This argument will of course neatly deal with the miles of rock strata, fossils and light from distant galaxies that are such an inconvenience to most creationists. However, after we had understood the gist of the Omphalus idea it would have been nice to have applied it to a relevant use rather than simply reinforcing the idea with further examples.

As amusing as it would be to present creationists with an alternative load of fetid dingo’s kidneys for not critically challenging the biblical account of creation, I’ve yet to see how another crazy idea can help those blinded by faith to accept evidence. Unless the absurdity of the idea can somehow provide a mirror for seeing more traditional creationist accounts for what they are.

An entertaining talk and one that will certainly cause me to look up Jack Cohen on Amazon. The science of Terry Pratchett’s discworld sounds like a good place for me to start.

2. Simon Singh

It is of course always a privilege to hear Simon Singh talk as there is no doubting his gift for communicating and his love of science. It is in fact for this reason I photo-shopped Simon on to the shoulders of Carl Sagan in my recent TAM London speakers’ blog. Despite the comic indignation, I hope it will be seen as the mark of reverence in which it was intended.

Simon’s talk on this occasion was the Big Bang theory and consisted of a brief and entertaining run through of his excellent book of the same name. One of the reasons I love Simon Singh’s Big Bang book is that it answers the question: “How do we know that?" And "Why do scientists think that?” Teaching the Big Bang without reference to how we know it just leaves you wondering why you should believe it. Singh’s book starts from first principles and builds up by first explaining how we know the circumference of the Earth, how we know the distance of the sun and the moon, and how we know the workings of the solar system.

Due to time restrictions Simon starts of the lecture from the initial idea of the big bang theory by Belgium Catholic Priest Georges Lemaître. Of course the name “Big Bang” was not in use at this time and the theory was not scientifically accepted, especially as it smacked of the Biblical creation story rather than the solid state model preferred by Einstein and other contemporary scientists.

Singh then goes on to explain how astronomer Edwin Hubble went on to observe how the galaxies are all moving away from each other by noticing that the light from these galaxies is shifted to the red end of the spectrum. The Doppler Effect shows how the wavelength varies depending on if an object is moving away, or towards the observer (as in the familiar sound of a passing racing car).

Despite this evidence for an expanding universe and the extrapolation of running the scenario backwards to the beginnings of space and time, many scientists preferred to stick with the solid state model of the universe. In fact the phrase “Big Bang” was coined by Fred Hoyle at this time as a somewhat disparaging term for the theory. But of course it stuck, and Singh even manages to play us the original radio excerpt where the phrase was coined.

Further evidence was however required to fully validate the big bang theory and although the notion of echoes of microwave radiation emitting from the big bang should be detectible to validate the theory, the equipment of the time was not sufficient to do so.

Most of us are familiar with the tale of Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson years later using a microwave receiver to pick up signals emitted by celestial sources in our milky way but being constantly plagued with background noise from all directions. After cleaning out the deposits left by the pigeons nesting in the receiver they eventually realise they are listening to the cosmic radiation of the big bang and had discovered the predicted evidence required to fully support the Big Bang model.

Naturally Simon explains all this in much more detail and with numerous witty interjections, but of course you’re much better off reading the book than this clumsy summary.

3. Stephen Law

“It’s pretty obvious” says Stephen law, “that an all loving benevolent God does not exist”. Stephen takes us through some of the obvious points put forward by non believers such as “Why is there so much evil and suffering in the world?” For each of these pieces of evidence for the non existence of a benevolent God, Stephen points us at the arguments that sophisticated theologians have come up with to counter this evidence.

The main argument used by the religious to explain the existence of evil deeds is of course “freewill”. Without freewill we are mere puppets doing the good bidding of our creator. In order for our actions to have meaning and for us to truly exhibit love and compassion we must have freewill and the ability to choose these options for ourselves. Therefore the potential for evil is the price we must pay for the necessity of freewill.

So perhaps it’s not as obvious after all that there is no benevolent God, because theologians have come up with imaginative reasons to explain what at first glance look like screaming evidence for the non existence of God. Stephen gives further examples that I’ll gloss over in this review for the sake of brevity.

Having established a reasonable set of theological notions to refute each of the supposed obvious claims of the non-believers, Stephen proposes the idea that the universe was created by an all evil God. Not Satan, but a creator God who is completely evil and wants nothing but suffering, pain and misery.

Ridiculous of course, this sounds like a prosperous idea, how could such an evil God allow for someone like Mother Teresa who (apparently) did so much good in the world. Well of course, such an evil God could make us puppets to carry out his evil deeds, but they would be meaningless unless we had freewill in order to truly choose to be evil. For each of the claims to refute the existence of an all evil God we are able to use the exact same theological argument to dismiss it as we did for the benevolent God. This time though it sounds more absurd because the idea of an all evil God is less familiar and the counter arguments used in this context just sounds like pathetic bleating. But they are the exact same arguments used by theologians today. Why should they be any more valid when defending the benevolent God?

I thought Stephen came up with one of the cleverest arguments for the support of the evil God hypothesis during the Q&A session. “Why would an evil God create religions that are a comfort to people, provide solace and hope and do so much good work in the world”. Well suppose the all evil God revealed his extisance to a group of people in order to perpetuate such a religion, but then revealed himself to an alternative group with a few pieces of different information. The belief by each group that they alone have the divine unquestionable truth would recreate centuries of hatred, suffering and religious wars, it the perfect move for the all evil God.

4. Raj Persaud

I have to confess to not knowing who the final speaker was but I was filled in by some of my fellow attendees over lunch. I understand that Raj Persaud is a well known psychiatrist thanks to regular appearances on TV, and he was certainly a dapper and eloquent orator. The main focus of his talk was on the differences between “Internals” and “Externals”.

Raj starts us off with an imaginary scenario. Two people attend a job interview and are both unsuccessful in securing the job. The first person is an “Internal”; they take responsibility for their fate and view their failure at the interview as a consequence of their own qualifications and ability. The “External” assumes that there were forces outside of his control and he never had a chance of getting the job.

The external person gets more immediate gratification, although he didn’t get the job he can take solace in the fact that there was nothing he could have done about it anyway. The internal person however takes more responsibility and examines how he could do better in the future, peruses further education and skills and in the long term becomes better equipped for future job interviews.

These are traits that I can clearly recognise in a lot of people so I felt a lot of resonance with Raj’s talk. More disturbing however were the statistics presented showing a growing trend in the number of externals in the modern world today and the changes in our culture that fosters and promotes this type of viewpoint.

As always a highly enjoyable set of lectures, and I would recommend checking the CFI website for future events.

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