Monday, May 18, 2015

Alan Borovoy (1932-2015)


I am very sorry to learn that Alan Borovoy, a courageous fighter for free speech and civil liberties, has died.

He was for many years an important force in the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA), the Canadian version of the ACLU. I strongly recommend his book Uncivil Obedience.

Saturday, April 04, 2015

Pity the Poor Beleaguered Creationist


Here's a creationist I had never heard of before: John Gideon Hartnett, an Australian physicist. In a recent blog post, he makes some good points about how science is not a foolproof process, but then goes off the rails entirely.

Hartnett says, "If you say evolution happens, it is disingenuous, because you really mean that natural selection and mutations happen. This is part of operational biological science. But Darwinian goo-to-you evolution does not happen!"

This is misleading in a number of ways. First, that's not what is meant by "evolution happens". Evolution is caused by many different kinds of processes, including sexual selection, genetic drift, founder effects, and others not mentioned by Hartnett. Second, biological evolution is generally understood to include claims like common descent.

By "goo-to-you evolution does not happen", it sounds like Hartnett is claiming that we do not see 3.5 billion years of evolution taking place in 5 minutes. But this, of course, is a ridiculous straw man. We don't see mountains rising 3000 meters today either, but that doesn't mean that the theory of plate tectonics is somehow invalidated. Many aspects of science involve looking at past events that are not always easy to duplicate, and trying to understand how they took place.

Hartnett feels persecuted: "Last year I gave a lecture at my university “8 Reasons Why Evolution is Foolish” and after the event I got all sorts of negative comments coming back through my line manager. Apparently geologists and biologists (read ‘evolutionists’) complained to the Dean of the Faculty of Science, that I was even asking questions, let alone criticizing the science, in areas of biology, geology, cosmology etc., and that it looks bad for the university. It only looks bad because I was questioning their religion of science, not operational, experimental science."

Look, if you can't stand criticism, why are you in science? Criticism, even harsh criticism, is a standard part of the scientific process. Hasn't Hartnett ever attended a science conference? And if you think you're critiquing evolution by bringing up long-debunked arguments like "circular reasoning" is used to date fossils, then you're not doing science, you're just being an idiot. When you say "Information comes from an intelligent mind, not by random processes", you're just demonstrating that you know nothing at all about information theory.

Hartnett shouldn't wonder why he gets no respect for his anti-evolution rants. It's because his arguments are worthless, ignorant, and have been debunked long ago. That's not the behavior of a scientist; it's the behavior of a religious fundamentalist. Big surprise.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Shallow World of Conrad Black


Why anyone would care why convicted felon Conrad Black has to say is beyond me.

Why anyone would give this supercilious dolt 1500 words in a major newspaper to attack atheists is also beyond me.

Nevertheless, that's what the National Post just did.

Bigotry against religious denominations is not generally tolerated. But bigotry against atheists gets 1500 words. As a thought experiment, what major newspaper in North America would publish a column entitled "The shabby, shallow world of the militant Jew"?

There's really no point fisking this crap in detail; it's already been done a million times before, since Conrad Black literally has not a single original word to say. I'll just point out a few things:

"militant atheist": as I've said before, it's a good bet that if you hear somebody repeat this cliché, you're dealing with a propagandist or shoddy thinker. Black repeats the cliché several times. People like Peter Singer and Richard Rorty are derided as "vocal atheistic militants", but then what is the term for John Lennox, the glowing subject of the column? Is he not a "vocal Christian militant"? (And who the heck is the "David Hawking" that Black refers to?)

"Dr. Lennox is one of the world’s most eminent mathematicians": No, I'm sorry, he's not. This is a typical example of credential inflation, one of the favorite tools of creationists and propagandists. You should not be surprised to see Conrad Black use it.

Dr. Lennox is certainly a good group theorist, but "one of the world's most eminent mathematicians" is a gross exaggeration that, I dare say, even the good Dr. Lennox himself would disavow. Dr. Lennox has not won the Fields medal. Dr. Lennox has not won the Cole Prize in Algebra, Dr. Lennox's field. As far as I can see, Dr. Lennox has not won any mathematical prizes at all. According to MathSciNet, the main reviewing journal in mathematics, Dr. Lennox has published 70 works since 1970, or about 1.6 papers per year. This is a good, but not outstanding record. His papers have received a total of 292 citations. (By contrast, MathSciNet says I have published 182 papers since 1975, which have received a total of 1125 citations. And I want to emphasize that I am certainly not "one of the world's most eminent mathematicians".)

All this pompous protestation aside, Black is on the losing end of this debate. More and more young people are rejecting the bogus claims of organized religion. Christianity and Islam cannot survive in their present form; it's only a matter of time. Either they will dominate the world through totalitarianism, or evolve closer to Deism, or they will slowly vanish.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

John Lennox Talk #2: Miracles


I attended John Lennox's second talk (of three), on miracles. (I won't be able to attend his third lecture, on the problem of evil.) Here are some notes. I apologize for the spottiness (the notes are mostly for my own use); I'm not attempting to do a summary of what Lennox said.

Same ground rules as before: "..." represents my best rendering of an actual quote by Prof. Lennox. '...' (single quotes) is a paraphrase. * denotes a claim that is particularly misleading or egregiously wrong; the more stars, the worse the claim. Comments in brackets [like this] are my rejoinders.

*** "mockery is not an argument and doesn't do credit to the person doing the mocking." [Really? I need a new irony meter here, because the one I have just went SPROING. In Lennox talk #1, mockery was one of his main rhetorical tools! And it was dealt out by Prof. Lennox with relish. Somebody needs to check out the mote in their own eye. Oh, and for the record, I have nothing against mockery, just hypocrisy: "a horselaugh is worth a thousand syllogisms" is one of my favorite quotes.]

"creation of the universe is not an exception to known laws." [Wait a second, I thought it was the theists who were always saying things like "it's impossible that the universe could come from nothing". But what is creation "ex nihilo" then? And how about the Christian god supposedly "speaking" the Universe into being? That's not an exception to known laws?]

"Nature is largely but not absolutely uniform." [Actually, nature is not uniform in many ways. For example, conditions on the Earth today are not at all like the way they were 4.4 billion years ago, shortly after it formed. Vague prattle like "Nature is largely uniform" is basically content-free because it is so imprecise; anything you like could be an exception. If you want to assert uniformity, do it in a specific way: say, for example, "The speed of light in a vaccuum is a constant." Then at least you get something potentially testable and falsifiable. Of course, none of this supports Lennox's claims about miracles.]

"Hume denies the cause and effect relationships behind science." [Who cares? "Cause" and "effect" are just vague philosophical prattle. Open up a physics textbook and you won't find these words in the index. Instead you find things like "force", "mass", "acceleration", etc.]

"On both sides of the fence there are professors who accept miracles and those who reject them." [Yes, but that is true about almost any issue you can name. I'd bet if you surveyed members of the National Academy of Science, the vast majority reject miracles.]

** "Antony Flew was the world's leading interpreter of David Hume. He came to believe in a deistic god on the basis of the semiotic nature of DNA." [Yes, in his dotage, philosopher Flew became a deist. He had no training in biology or mathematics and accepted the claims of intelligent design advocates, apparently without seriously investigating their accuracy. There have also been serious questions about his possible mental deterioriation during this time. More telling is the fact that the overwhelming majority of evolutionary and molecular biologists, and biochemists, find nothing supernatural in the "semiotic nature of DNA". Who the heck thinks what Flew thought is an important consideration? Oh, and did you catch the credential inflation there for Flew? Check it out yourself: this article on Hume doesn't mention Flew even once.]

Lennox discusses Hume in relationship to miracles. [But Lennox apparently misses the single strongest argument by Hume, which is that miracles must be extremely improbable, but the fallibility of human testimony is extremely probable.]

* "Joseph knew where babies came from .. it took powerful pressure from God to change Joseph's mind." [By far the most rational explanation for Mary's alleged pregnancy is that she slept with a man. If it was not Joseph, and she claimed to be a virgin, as the story supposedly goes, then it seems likely she lied and slept with someone else. Attributing her infidelity to "God raped me" is an ingenious excuse, but not one any 21st century spouse is likely to accept. Christians need to rule out this obvious possibility before believing in a miracle. How can they do that? The evidence (if the events even took place) is 2000 years gone. But even if we accept the Christian account, we are led to accept two extremely unattractive things: first, that Mary was, for all intents and purposes, raped by the Christian god. Second, that this god has the ability to force people to believe anything he wants by exercising his will. So how can the Christian claim that any knowledge is reliable, when one's beliefs can be warped by their god's pressure?]

"If I put $100 yesterday in a drawer in my hotel, and another $100 this morning, and I come back in the evening and find $50, I don't say the laws of arithmetic have been violated; I say the laws of Canada have been violated. The drawer is not a closed system. The laws of arithmetic can't prevent someone putting their hand in a drawer." [This joke, and variations on it, is repeated in nearly every talk I've seen by Lennox. I still don't understand the point. The "laws" of arithmetic have little in common with the "laws" of nature, as Lennox understands well. "Laws" of arithmetic are consequences of axioms. "Laws" of nature are simply descriptions of our current understanding of nature and are subject to revision, particularly at very large or very small scales. It's up to Lennox to provide evidence that an incorporeal being exists, that it has the power to influence events, and so forth. Jokes like this make people laugh, but they have nothing to do with the evidentiary burden Lennox has.]

"C. S. Lewis said, `If God creates a miraculous spermatozoon in the body of a virgin, it does not proceed to break any laws. The laws at once take it over. Nature is ready. Pregnancy follows, according to all the normal laws, and nine months later a child is born.'" [Can the "spermatozoon" spontaneously appear on its own without violating conservation of mass?]

At this point, the talk ended and there were some questions. They were not very good.

Q: "Why are there more theists among physicists than among biologists". A: 'the big bang and fine tuning. Creationists are not taken seriously. Biology hasn't experienced the same revolution that physics has.' [Hasn't experienced the same revolution? Where has Lennox been for the last 60 years? DNA? Sequencing of genomes? Evolutionary development? The neutral theory? Hox genes? Horizontal transfer?]

"Christianity is an evidence-based faith." [No comment necessary.]

After the talk, I tried to ask a question. Despite the fact that the room was not terribly large, the organizers did not allow people to stand up and ask questions. I feel confident that this was to weed out inconvenient questions. Instead, you had to text a question or hand it in on a piece of paper. My question was the following: "Joseph of Cupertino was a 17th century priest who could levitate and fly, according to attestations by numerous witnesses. Do you accept that he could actually fly and levitate? Why or why not? Why do we not see flying priests today?"

The organizers asked my question but changed the wording to omit "Joseph of Cupertino" (which I don't appreciate at all). In response, Prof. Lennox said that he accepted the miracles of the Bible because they had a semiotic content or symbolism or subtext of meaning that fits with the message of the Bible, but flying priests would be a miracle that lacks this subtext, so he doesn't believe in them. But this is silly. I can easily make up a story, say, "The flying priest reminds witnesses of He who ascended to Heaven after the Resurrection." Who is to say whether that is a sufficient symbolism or explanation?

"Of course miracles are still happening today." Lennox tells the story of meeting a Russian on a train and giving him a Russian bible, for which the man was very grateful. He seemed to think this was a miraculous event. But given that (a) Lennox is a professional evangelist (b) Lennox speaks several languages, including Russian and (c) Lennox travels a lot, isn't the probability that he would have a Bible in the language of someone he would meet rather high? Lennox evidently has an extremely low standard for miracles.

All in all, this was a pretty poor performance. Only someone with a pre-existing faith in miracles could be swayed by the weakness of Lennox's arguments.

For another take on this talk by Lennox, see Jeff Orchard's blog

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Ben Carson Fake-Quotes Stalin


Speaking of fake quotes, here's yet another example from the religious right.

This time it's the utterly moronic Ben Carson, who drools as follows:

"It was ... it was ... I think it was Stalin who said, `Give me your children for three years and I will have them for life.' The point being that it's relatively easy at that inflection point to indoctrinate people and to change their way of thinking for the rest of their lives."

Stalin apparently never said anything like this. Crazed right-wingers usually attribute a similar sentiment to Lenin, but even that is quite dubious. As Boller and George write in their book They Never Said It, "it is doubtful that Lenin ever made the remark... The remark about children, with appropriate adaptations of course, has been attributed to Adolf Hitler as well as to Lenin, and to Catholic Church leaders as well. But there is no evidence that any of them made the statement, and its provenance remains uncertain."

Now that Carson has attributed it to Stalin, I'm sure wingnuts will be doing the same thing over and over in the years ahead. They don't care anything about truth; all they care is whether the quote (fake or not) supports their worldview.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

John Lennox Hoist by His Own Petard


In this debate with Michael Shermer, John Lennox decries what he sees as shoddy scholarship by Richard Dawkins (at 1:02:23):

"He [Dawkins] was discussing the question and saying in his book, that the historical existence of Jesus is in dispute among scholars. The only authority he cited to prove his point was a professor --- that's what he said --- Professor G. A. Wells of London. He didn't tell us that Wells is a professor of German. He didn't contact any ancient historian, and therefore made a colossal faux pas in his book, and that undermines my confidence. Because, you see, ancient history is a discipline where we can check, and if people claim to be interested in evidence, then to do that kind of thing is simply inexcusable. That's the point I'm making."

(By the way, I don't know how Prof. Lennox knows with certainty that Dawkins "didn't contact any ancient historian".)

It's true that denying the historical existence of Jesus is a minority view, one that Wells himself has apparently retreated from. Of course, Wells is not wrong because he's a professor of German; logically, arguments should be judged on their merits, not on the qualifications of the person making them. But it is perfectly reasonable -- and we do it all the time -- to view with skepticism strong claims in area A made by a person qualified in area B. I am glad that Lennox is so devoted to the truth.

But now let's listen to Prof. Lennox again at 30:00:

"Prominent German thinker Jurgen Habermas, who calls himself a methodological atheist, says that Christianity and nothing else is the ultimate foundation of liberty, conscience, human rights, and democracy: the benchmarks of Western civilization. "To this day we have no other options: we continue to nourish ourselves from this source. Everything else is postmodern chatter."

This is a bogus quote, as I've documented before. I now repeat the relevant portions from that blog post of mine:

This quotation is phony, but is very popular among Christians.

Its origins have been carefully traced by Thomas Gregersen, who writes:

But this is a misquotation! The reference is an interview with Jürgen Habermas that Eduardo Mendieta made in 1999. It is published in English with the title "A Conversation About God and the World" in Habermas's book "Time of Transitions" (Polity Press, 2006).

What Habermas actually says in this interview is:

"Egalitarian universalism, from which sprang the ideas of freedom and social solidarity, of an auonomous conduct of life and emancipation, of the individual morality of conscience, human rights and democracy, is the direct heir of the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love. This legacy, substantially unchanged, has been the object of continual critical appropriation and reinterpretation. To this day, there is no alternative to it. And in light of the current challenges of a postnational constellation, we continue to draw on the substance of this heritage. Everything else is just idle postmodern talk (p. 150f)."

The misquote rewrites Habermas's statement and changes its meaning:
(1) Habermas talks about the historical origin of egalitarian universalism - not the foundation of human rights today.
(2) Habermas mentions both Judaism and Christianity - not only Christianity.
(3) Habermas says that there is no alternative to this legacy ("Erbe" in German) - not that we have no alternative to Christianity.
[end of Gregersen]

If I may paraphrase the distinguished Professor Lennox:

"Because, you see, modern philosophy is a discipline where we can check, and if people claim to be interested in evidence, then to do that kind of thing is simply inexcusable. That's the point I'm making."

John Lennox - Talk #1: "Do Science and God Mix?"


I attended Christian evangelist John Lennox's talk last night here at the University of Waterloo. Rather than produce a polished critique -- which I can't do for lack of time and other reasons -- I'll just record some notes about what he said and add some brief rebuttals. Statements of Lennox that seem particularly misleading and/or egregiously false are marked with *; the more stars, the more egregious the claim. Exact quotes are rendered to the best of my ability and are set off by "...". Paraphrases are set off by '...'. My comments are in brackets.

If you missed the talk, you can get practically the same experience by watching Lennox's videos on Youtube. Lennox used the same examples, the same stories, and the same jokes, often word for word. In particular I recommend

Once you've seen these three, you've gotten something like 90% of the content of last night's talk. Originality is not one of Lennox's vices.

Lennox's main rhetorical tools consisted of jokes, anecdotes, ridiculing his opponents as stupid, dishonest, or both, and appeals to emotion. There was very little science or mathematics or logic or reason involved. I go to the Pascal lectures as often as I can in the hopes that someday someone will present some good arguments for Christianity, but thus far I have always been disappointed.

"Militant atheism": [Lennox started with this cliché, which I've discussed before. It's a good bet that if you hear somebody say "militant atheist" you're dealing with a propagandist or shoddy thinker.]

* 'Peter Higgs (atheist) and Bill Phillips (Christian) both won Nobel prizes in physics, so science can't be incompatible with religion': [This does not follow at all. When we say 'science is incompatible with religion' we don't mean that no scientist holds religious beliefs; we mean that the beliefs themselves are at odds. People hold all sorts of inconsistent beliefs. After all, Lennox argues elsewhere that Christianity decries violence, despite the fact that there are thousands of examples of Christians committing violent acts, from the Crusades to the present day.]

"Science is Christianity's gift to the world; it arose from belief in the rationality of God": [I think this is an unreasonable extrapolation. After all, we can trace the roots of modern science to the ancient Greeks, such as Archimedes, and some say the first modern scientists were actually Muslims such as Ibn al-Haytham. If Christianity were solely responsible for modern science, then why did it take 1600 years of Christianity for it to start?]

"Atheism is a delusion: a persistent false belief despite countervailing evidence" [No evidence provided for this assertion]

He repeats his familiar jokes; the person who met him at University and said, "Do you believe in God? Oh, of course you do -- you're Irish"; his riposte to the remark that "Religion is for people who are afraid of the dark" is "Atheism is for people who are afraid of the Light". [As I remarked before, a lot of Lennox's schtick consists of his recounting his bon mots and relating how much the audience (or the Internet) appreciated them. The man definitely has an ego.]

"Germany's leading psychiatrist, Manfred Lutz": [Another typical creationist ploy: credential inflation. Everybody who agrees with them is "eminent", "world famous", "world-class", etc. ]

'Atheism is just a projection, to never be held responsible for bad conduct': [Except that atheists are sometimes more ethical than theists. See, for example, R. E. Smith, G. Wheeler, and E. Diener, Faith without works: Jesus people, resistance to temptation, and altruism, J. Applied Social Psychology 5 (1975), 320-330.]

"Atheists are confused about who God is." 'When Michael Shermer showed me a list of gods and said I was atheist with respect to them', Lennox thought, "What spectacular intellectual ignorance! He obviously knows nothing about the gods of the Ancient Near East"; 'they were descended from the heavens and earth, but the Christian god created the heavens and earth': [Another typical Lennox ploy: all the people he argues against are 'ignorant', 'deluded', etc. Much of his schtick consists in stories about how stupid everyone else is and how smart Lennox is. For my part, I think Shermer's point is quite good. There are, after all, other monotheisms, and I suppose Lennox does not adhere to them. The fact that the Christian god has some supposedly unique attributes does not detract from Shermer's point; every god has some unique attributes not shared by others.]

"In the first line of Genesis, God creates spacetime" [Not true; it says nothing about the modern conception of spacetime. Another typical example of Christians taking credit for something undeserved.]

** "The more you know of the universe, the more you admire the genius of the God who did it." [Maybe Lennox admires the Christian god, but I don't. Any god that creates the rabies virus and the Trypanosoma brucei protozoan is obviously morally depraved.]

* 'When we see water boiling, and ask why, a scientist will explain about heat conduction and the boiling point of water, and so forth, but the real reason is because I want a cuppa tea' "Scientists can't admit personal agency and intentionality as an explanation." "Professors can't grasp it because they think the scientific explanation is the only one". [On the contrary, personal agency is used as an explanation in all sorts of scientific endeavors, such as archeology. It is rejected in biology because (a) we have no evidence of any 'person' that was involved in terrestrial biology before people existed and (b) we understand mechanisms such as mutation and selection that can explain the biological diversity we see. "Agency" as an explanation in the absence of evidence for an agent was addressed in an article of Wilkins and Elsberry, which Lennox could fruitfully read.]

"The question, who created God?, doesn't apply to an eternal God, it applies to created gods": [Misleading, because the question 'who created God?' is a rejoinder to the common Christian assertion that 'everything that exists has a cause'. If you can say the Christian god existed eternally, why not say the universe did so, too?]

* Lennox objected to the word "faith" used to mean "blind faith". He claimed the word had been "redefined" and this redefinition was a "willful and deliberate twisting" of the "real definition". [Well, tough, Prof. Lennox. Just go a dictionary and you'll read definition #2 of faith: "Strong belief in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual conviction rather than proof". That is not a "redefinition" or a "twisting", but just one of the ways the word can be used. If you object to words having different meanings, maybe you should brush up on your linguistics.]

* Lennox went on to equate the word "faith" with "belief system". He describes how he bested Peter Singer in a debate when Singer asserted that "atheism is not a faith" by replying, "Why, Peter, I thought you believed in it!" [It is foolishness to assert that a word with well-accepted multiple meanings must be used only one way. Lennox's equation of "faith" with "belief system" is merely one of the meanings of the word "faith"; in one dictionary, that would be definition 2.2: "A strongly held belief". Under definitions 1, 2, and 2.1, it is not correct to describe atheism as a "faith"; under definition 2.2, it might be. And even that is subject to debate, because atheism can more reasonably understood as a lack of belief in something, not a belief in something.]

* "Faith in Christianity is exactly the same as faith in science". [No, it isn't at all. This is a completely ridiculous claim. Christianity asserts all sorts of truth claims, like the existence of a supernatural deity, the effectiveness of prayer, and (for example) the fact that "true believers" can "drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them". I don't see many Christians testing these claims in a scientific fashion, and I certainly don't see Lennox testing this last one.]

'Einstein and Polkinghorne said that faith in the rational intelligibility of the universe is a prerequisite to do physics': [I don't agree. I don't think the universe is necessarily "rationally intelligible" and I don't think you need this assumption to do science. Rather, you attempt to find and describe regularities and often you fail.]

"All schools are faith schools because they're all based on a world view." [Word games. I already pointed out that this is true only under definition 2.2, not other definitions.]

"If the mind is the end result of a mindless unguided process, can you trust it?" [In fact, we don't trust it. Modern science has revealed numerous ways in which people make cognitive mistakes. More importantly, there is no reason that a mindless unguided process can't result in correct decision-making.]

*** "Two world-class philosophers, Alvin Plantinga and Thomas Nagel" have raised this point [above]. [Well, the high regard that Plantinga and Nagel are held in is itself very good evidence for something quite wrong in the academic practice of philosophy. If you can't find the errors and bogus assumptions in Plantinga's "evolutionary argument against naturalism", then you haven't tried very hard. (For the lazy, you can read the devastating critiques of Plantinga by "world-class philosophers" Paul Churchland and Geoff Childers and Feng Ye. I wonder if Lennox has read any of these.)]

* "You can't explain the semiotics of the words "roast chicken" in terms of paper and ink." [Well, no, but nobody would claim that you can.] "You need intelligence." [But "intelligence" isn't supernatural.] "The explanatory power of chemistry and physics doesn't extend to semiotics." [Asserted but not proved. For a detailed explanation of the meaning of "roast chicken", you need to understand the evolutionary history of humans and chickens and the social evolution of language and food and cooking. It doesn't have a one-line explanation.]

** "Whenever you see language you infer intelligence." 'You see "roast" in English and you infer intelligence. Then you see the 3.7 billion letters of DNA and you don't? What's wrong there?' [What's wrong is conflating natural language with DNA. DNA differs in many ways from natural language, one of the most important being the lack of compressibility. We know how DNA evolves through processes like mutation, selection, recombination, genetic drift, and so forth, so how its information is accumulated and changed is not that mysterious. Typical creationist ploy.]

"Information itself is not material. Information is not reducible to physics and chemistry." [Asserted but not proved. What is an example of information not in a physical medium?]

** "The default position in society is atheism and naturalism - you can do that in public if you want, but not Christianity" [Utterly ridiculous. While I write this I am watching an episode of the TV show "Chicago Fire" where a minister is saying things like "We're not operating on God's timetable, are we? We don't understand God's plan -- how can we? And let me tell you, this is where faith comes in. Faith can help us see His message in our lives." Until quite recently, you'd never see an atheist on TV depicted as sympathetically as this minister. Religion, and Christianity, absolutely pervades every aspect of society in North America. How many atheists are members of Congress? Or MP's in Canada? What national holiday is coming up here in Canada? But this is just the usual Christian trope about how they are victimized, persecuted, etc. by the evil secularists.]

'Scientists who are Christians' "have been silenced by their colleagues". [No real evidence provided. And isn't it just a little ironic that this claim is being made by a Christian evangelist who is being given space for three public religious lectures sponsored by a public university? The exact same claim was made four years ago by Mary Poplin in her Pascal lecture. Maybe the series should be retitled "The Christian Victimhood Lectures".]

"I believe in the full inspiration and authority of Scripture". [Well, then he's not acting as a scientist. Scientists don't believe in the full inspiration and authority of any book. In science, truth claims are subject to debate and can fall with the weight of evidence.]

* "The Big Bang ... was fiercely resisted ... the editor of Nature said that 'it'll give too much leverage to people who believe the Bible": [I am not an historian of physics, but as far as I can see, this is incorrect. In the 1950's and early 1960's there were at least two competing theories, the "steady-state" and "Big Bang" models, and there was evidence in support of both of these. The consensus slowlychanged in support of the Big Bang as new evidence emerged, but there were still holdouts. I see no evidence that it was "fiercely resisted". The "editor of Nature" referred to is John Maddox, and his editorial (behind paywall) never said anything like "it'll give too much leverage to people who believe the Bible". Here is what Maddox said (in part): "Creationists and those of similar persuasions seeking support for their opinions have ample justification in the doctrine of the Big Bang. That, they might say, is when (and how) the Universe was created. The reality of the event is accepted. The question of its cause, in the absence of time, is a matter for the imagination. Moderate creationists are no doubt content with that inference.

"Luckily for the rest of us, moderate creationists' more impatient (and noisy) brethren seem more concerned to demonstrate that the whole world began just a few thousand years ago, which is why they have impaled themselves on the hook of trying to disprove the relatively recent (and terrestrial) geological record. But, in the long run, the impatient creationists will have to retreat to the Big Bang..."
I leave it to the reader of this blog to decide if Lennox has fairly summarized Maddox's view.]

About evolution: "the question is: can this mechanism do what is ascribed to it? No, at several different levels". "A child ought to be able to see that evolution cannot be responsible for the origin of life"; that claim is "a complete bamboozling fog". [Yet another implication by Lennox that his opponents are either stupid or dishonest. I don't know anybody that says that the first replicator arose by "evolution". Lennox claimed that Dawkins said this, but I couldn't find it in Dawkins' writings anywhere.]

*** "From the perspective of theoretical computer science, you'll see that natural processes cannot produce life." [Well, this at least is in my area of expertise. I am a theoretical computer scientist and I've followed the creation-evolution debate fairly closely. I do not know a single claim from theoretical computer science that has this implication. On the contrary, there are many results from the field of artificial life that imply the opposite. Just to name one paper, see Koza, J. R., Artificial life: Spontaneous emergence of self-replicating and evolutionary self-improving computer programs. In C. G. Langton (Ed.), Artificial life III, 1994, pp. 225–262.]

"Lawrence Krauss made a catastrophic mistake when discussed philosophy." "Stephen Hawking doesn't understand any philosophy". "Peter Atkins" said mathematics created the universe and Lennox responded "That was the stupidest thing I've ever heard." [Yes, all of Lennox's opponents are drooling morons, barely capable of reason. Christian charity in abundance!]

At this point the question and answer session began. [No live questions from the floor were permitted -- I suspect this was to avoid the embarrassment of tough questions from previous Pascal lectures. Instead, people had to submit questions via text. This is an excellent way to weed out tough questions, and indeed all the questions read were softballs.]

About existence of extraterrestrial life and its compatibility with the Bible: "Yes, it exists - it's God". [Oh, come on. Any reasonable person would understand the question is about the existence of life, similar to terrestrial life, existing on other planets. I dislike this kind of evasion.]

Self-creation of the universe is "logically false". [No, it isn't. Mathematical logic discusses the world of propositions, not physical events.]

* "A word-based creation is utterly profound. Hoyle was amazed that this was found in the Bible." [In the longstanding tradition of atheists and agnostics being "amazed" by claims by theists. I doubt very much that Lennox's account is accurate. No educated person in the Western world would be ignorant of John 1:1: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." Claiming Hoyle did not know this is absurd.]

"People become Christians and get peace": [proffered in support of the truth of Christianity. Sorry, but people get peace from all sorts of religions and philosophies, but that doesn't imply any of them are true.]

Quoting Andrew Sims: "The advantageous effect of religious belief and spirituality on mental and physical health is one of the best-kept secrets in psychiatry and medicine generally." [An evident exaggeration. Just google "spirituality and health" and you'll get 105,000,000 hits, including many articles in the scholarly literature on precisely this subject. By the way, among Christian sects, Mormons are particularly healthy. Does this suggest the truth of Mormonism?]

"You can come back in a year and find 500 people transformed by atheism and I'll give you 5000 people transformed by Christianity." [Well, considering atheists are outnumbered by Christians in Ireland, England, Canada, and the US, this should hardly be surprising.]

"Jesus claimed to die for people's sins and you can test that." [How? Design an experiment. Perform it. Publish your results. Then we'll talk.]

"The golden rule is found in all cultures, and you'd expect that if we were made in the image of God." [Doesn't follow; replace "golden rule" with "murder" and what conclusion do you get? BTW, you'd also expect it if it is a product of our evolutionary history. There is some evidence for this; see the work of primatologist Frans de Waal.]

*** "Christianity is not a merit-based faith, based on good deeds." [An evident misrepresentation, which refuses to acknowledge an old debate in Christianity: are Christians justified by faith alone or by faith plus works? Support for both views can be found in the Bible. To claim that Christianity is not based on good deeds, when substantial parts of the Christian world believe this, is intellectually dishonest. Perhaps Lennox would claim that those who disagree are not "true Christians", but this would be an example of the "No True Irishman" fallacy.]

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

It's Pascal Lecture Time Again -- John Lennox at Waterloo


(Almost) every year, my university hosts the Pascal Lectures, which "bring to the University of Waterloo outstanding individuals of international repute who have distinguished themselves in both an area of scholarly endeavour and an area of Christian thought or life." The speakers "discourse with the university community on some aspect of its own world, its theories, its research, its leadership role in society, challenging the university to a search for truth through personal faith and intellectual inquiry which focus on Jesus Christ." Why a public university funded by our tax dollars supports this clearly evangelical series is beyond me, but there it is.

I've commented in the past about the choice of speakers, which has ranged from the sublime (Donald Knuth) to the ridiculous (Mary Poplin, Malcolm Muggeridge, Charles Rice).

This year's speaker is somewhere in the middle. He's John Lennox, known to mathematicians for his work on group theory, and known to everyone else for his jolly but inept attempts to criticize atheists, which he's done in a number of books.

Prof. Lennox may be a good group theorist, but it appears he learned his information theory from intelligent design creationists. For example, in this YouTube video, at the 13:10 mark, he claims, "but unless we have a mechanism that actually creates information -- which we do not have -- there is no evidence that natural selection and mutation can create any significant information -- until we have that, it's simply an evolution of the gaps".

This, of course, is utter nonsense (but delivered smugly in a beautiful Irish accent). We certainly do know that mutation can create as much information as we want, and we know many examples that natural selection and mutation in concert together can create information-rich structures.

Lennox seemingly has virtually nothing original to say. Most of his schtick consists of quoting the usual suspects (Plantinga, Berlinski, McGrath), and boasting about how he bested this atheist or that one with a bon mot in a debate, which he recounts with relish.

I am completely unimpressed with Lennox's work outside group theory. But I can certainly understand why theists desperate to have someone with a Ph. D. tell them they are right would want to have him for a speaker.