Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Skeptics Sellout to Christians

I spent the weekend at CalTech to attend a Skeptics Society conference. This particular event was titled “Origins: the Big Questions," addressing whether science renders divine faith obsolete. The speakers who drew me there were quantum physicist Leonard Susskind, entertainer Keith Dalton (creator and star of the hilarious and irreverent online series Mr. Deity), and of course Michael Shermer, who founded the society and edits the great Skeptic Magazine.

The Good Part moz-screenshot-15.jpg

The conference began with a real bang – the Big one of course, and a lesson on what preceded that singularity as best understood today by physicists. Susskind condensed his Stanford undergraduate cosmology course into a beautiful one-hour primer on the universal constants (Planck’s, gravitational constant, speed of light…) that support life. It turns out that life can only evolve and survive in a narrow window of values for these constants, a fact that Christians have recently embraced as proof of an intelligent designer. But Susskind explained how quantum mechanics support the existence of a multiverse that regularly spawns new universes with different sets of constants, making it inevitable that our comfy universe should appear. (I asked him whether a future day Dr. Strangelove could create the conditions that spawn a new universe in our own – he said no, but without a compelling explanation.)

millerurey.jpgThe other highlight of the day was Dr. Donald Prothero, who summarized his undergraduate Caltech course on evolution. Prothero first debunked the Christian claims that there are evidentiary gaps in the theories of early evolution on Earth. He walked us through the Fox-Miller-Urey experiments conducted in the 1970’s in which amino acids formed in a simulation of the primordial soup, and identified exactly which elements on earth would have catalyzed the binding of those molecules into proteins and nucleic acids (most likely RNA). He showed us photographs of three billion year old fossils in which these nucleic acids are evident. He then shared Amherst professor Lynn Margulis’ widely accepted theory of how single celled organisms evolved into our cellular organelles like mitochondria, which have their own unique DNA and reproductive processes.

Then he debunked the Christian claim that most modern species appeared “all at once” during the period known as the Cambrian explosion half a billion years ago (hmm, I thought the Lord had dispatched Noah only four thousand years ago). The Cambrian explosion is a dramatic misnomer, referring to a period of above average mutations that actually lasted over 20 million years.

Caltech physicist Sean Carroll delivered a great talk on time’s arrow – how time fits into the universe and how it cannot exist without fluctuations in entropy. He explained how the physical constants give our universe just the right amount of clumpiness so that time can flow, and he presented an alternative theory – consistent with quantum mechanics – on how universes can bear “babies” with differing constants.

We heard from Caltech biologist Christoff Koch on the mystery of consciousness. Although he’s not a Christian, he is arguably a dualist who believes that consciousness may in fact entail a new force not yet discovered by physicist, consistent with the claims of my friend and AI researcher Steven Ericsson-Zenith.

The Bad Part

Had the lunch break in fact marked the end of the event, it would have been perfect. The afternoon sessions were dominated by Christians whose presentations ranged from nefariously clever to stupidly juvenile.

Why did Michael Shermer waste the time of 400 people who traveled to Pasadena on pilgrimage for real science? The only reason I can fathom is that the Skeptic Society could not produce the event without the financial backing of the event’s sponsor, the John Templeton Foundation. This foundation funds programs and prizes that promote the application of science to spirituality. In other words, it’s a Christian I.D. think tank. They obviously insisted on featuring Christian speakers like Paul Davies, to whom they had awarded the Templeton Prize.

For example, Hugh Ross presented the science behind reasons.org, a web site alleging to prove that Jesus is our savior. Hugh’s presentation was colorful and fun, but the logic was about on par with Johnny Cochrane’s “If the glove don’t fit, you must acquit!” Among other “proofs” Ross claimed that Genesis’ 6-day Creation tale jives with evidence of a 14 billion year old universe, since the Hebrew word for day (“yom”) also means a very long time. Except that it doesn’t. (Good thing I attended yeshiva.)

PhotobucketThe lowlight of the day was surely the talk by theologian Dr. Nancey Murphy, and the debate that followed between her and Michael Shermer. Apparently she got her current position because she sat in her “prayer chair” and specifically told her god what kind of position she wanted. It’s very important, she counsels, to be specific with Jesus (after all he’s pretty busy).

During the debate Michael asked her why God hates amputees, since He refuses to answer anyone’s prayer to heal them. Her answer was that she doesn’t know anyone who has prayed on behalf of amputees. Amputation isn’t fatal and doesn’t seem prone to cure, and so limb growth just isn’t something that people pray for. A heckler clarified, “Oh, so it’s Christians who hate amputees!"

In response to a question from the audience, Shermer expressed disappointment that so many scientists fail to think critically. While he said this, Murphy nodded in agreement, completely unaware that Shermer was talking about her.

The conference picked up at the end, when the cast of Mr. Deity -- directed by former Mormon Keith Dalton -- performed live episodes of the brilliant online series that really nails the Big Questions (with no input from the Templeton Foundation). If you haven’t watched it, start with Episode 1…

: Gary Rosen from the Templeton Foundation emailed me to correct my impressions of Templeton. He, and the commenters below, did persuade me that Templeton is not an "ID think tank", and Davies is a Deist but not necessarily Christian. Rather, Templeton tries to reconcile faith with science. Clever, but still nonsense. Faith is belief without evidence, and so pushing it into a skeptics agenda leads to absurdity.

Update 2: One of the commenters on this post finds me irritating and strident because I'm a "militant atheist". I responded in this post (one of my better ones): Military Avampirists Are So Irritating!

Update 3: PZ Myers at Pharyngula evokes a rich discussion on the evils of the Templeton Foundation. (i.e. they funded the Prop 8 anti-gay amendment in California)
Blogged with the Flock Browser

No comments:

Post a Comment