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


lukebarnes said...

'"Cause" and "effect" are just vague philosophical prattle. Open up a physics textbook and you won't find these words in the index.'

F = ma
F is the cause
a is the effect

You won't find those words in the index because the whole book is about causes and effects. You'd have to list every page.

That's why physical laws are *dynamical*. They are about what follows next, given what exists now. It's also why they are mostly differential - there is a continuous sequence of events, in which each the effect of the ones immediately before and the cause of the ones after.

At best, one could argue that "cause and effect" is emergent. Given the time symmetry of fundamental laws, the arrow of time is thermodynamic. But it is still very real, and emergent does not mean vague.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

So, Luke, when a U-238 atom decays, what "causes" the decay of that particular atom?

The whole truth said...

Lennox's assertions are just the same old, lame old religious gobbledegook that bible thumpers endlessly spew to defend and promote their despicable, imaginary sky daddy and associated fairy tales.

Does Lennox get paid to drool his IDiocy?

(Can you tell that I'm not positively impressed by Lennox's nuttery and dishonest games?) :)

lukebarnes said...

It depends on your interpretation of quantum mechanics, but don't confuse indeterminacy with the lack of any cause. There are accounts of causation on which quantum events are caused. After all, the U-238 atom obeys very precise scientific laws: we can understand its decay rate and decay products in terms of the laws of quantum mechanics and nuclear physics. We can speak meaningfully of indeterministic causes: the decay is caused by the instability of the U-238 nucleus. This account "supports its counterfactuals": if the nucleus had not been unstable, the decay would not have happened.

What we are missing is a reason for the contrastive fact of why the decay happened at 10:01am and not 10:02 am. But if the cause is indeterministic, then there is no such fact. That does not mean that the decay was uncaused. If causality is an umbrella term for the orderliness of nature, then the decay of U-238 has a cause. We need nature to tell us what it does, and so what kind of causes are out there.

More generally, quantum mechanics isn't definitely indeterminate. There is Bohmian mechanics, for example, which is deterministic. There quantum Bayesianism, where the cause is there but unknown. There is the Everettian interpretation, where probabilities arise from self-locating uncertainty, not from indeterminacy.

This is essentially the debate between the Humeans (there are no causes, only regularities) and the governance view (there are causes in nature which our laws describe). Barry Loewer gives a good intro to the Humean view here: . This debate is not over.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

"If causality is an umbrella term for the orderliness of nature, then the decay of U-238 has a cause."

Sorry, I think that's a very weaselly answer. The honest answer, in my opinion, is that in quantum mechanics there can be truly uncaused events. This gives me no joy or fear to say; it just seems the most accurate view based on what we now know. And besides, as you say, there are probabilistic laws to which these uncaused events seem to conform.

What I don't understand is the reluctance to admit that "causality" is a vague, undefined term. We should strive for precision, not bow to the demands of philosophers to make their inchoate & intuitive view of the word the ruling point of view.

Curt Cameron said...

lukebarnes said:
"... the decay is caused by the instability of the U-238 nucleus."

This statement is just a tautology. "Instability" is a word we use to describe things that tend to decay. Your statement does not describe any cause-effect relationship.

Paul said...

It's funny, but I read about Joseph of Cupertino several years ago, and his may be one of my favorite saint's stories. I am not religious, but if I were still a believing Catholic I wouldn't be required (unless I'm very mistaken) to accept his flying as canon, but I also wouldn't see any reason to rule it out.

I think for a lot of people, it's a face-saving measure to insist that flying saints are silly, or else no one will take them seriously. I would counter that it's a dreary faith that doesn't leave room for the ecstatic. My understanding is that Joseph did not intentionally fly or necessarily accomplish anything by it (practical or symbolic). He would sometimes just be seized by such a strong presence of God that he was lifted into the air. Think of it as a spiritually-fueled affliction, a divine form of epilepsy.

As an atheist, I don't believe it, but if I believed in God, I would surely want such things to be possible. I think it's a very beautiful way to describe spirituality.

On the other hand... miraculous spermatozoon... huh? What a terrible idea. For the "word to be made flesh", God only has to say the word. He's God after all. Some clunky pseudo-clinical explanation only cheapens things. I'm not a fan of C.S. Lewis to begin with, but this turn of phrase brings his rationalization of faith to a new low.

My original interest in Joseph of Cupertino was piqued by the dissonance with his namesake city Cupertino, CA, known for its high-performing schools. Joseph, by contrast, was known as "remarkably unclever" and would approach his exams for the priesthood by studying whatever small part he could manage and pray that this was the part he'd be tested on (making him an appealing patron saint of students).

I could believe all of this if I could believe any of it. But I lack patience for those who want to have faith and also don't want to look silly in the eyes of their rationalist peers. They're left with something that is neither rational nor spiritually uplifting.

Diogenes said...

"F = ma
F is the cause
a is the effect"

No, this equation merely defines what "force" meant to Newton. F=ma has no scientific content by itself until you connect it to other principles, e.g. for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. In that principle, there is a relation between forces (more strictly, between impulses), but there is no clear statement about which-- the impulse or its opposite-- is the cause and which is the effect.

In quantum field theory, it's worse: if particle A and B interact, then A and B are both affected by the interaction, both change, and neither A nor B can be said to be the cause. The idea of an unmoved mover is impossible in quantum field theory.

Paul said...

Cause and effect are often not very helpful concepts, even in the simplest physics.

E.g., I have a clear memory of playing around with an electronics kit at age 12 or 13 and being very confused by Ohm's law. I just wanted to know something like "How do I set the resistance to get this much voltage?" and I couldn't really grasp that the equation describes an equilibrium state rather than a cause-and-effect situation.

My "cause and effect" intuition was adequate to understand something like how I could move a bicycle wheel by turning the pedal, but really not a good way to think about electronics.

It is also true, as noted above, that physical laws are reversible, which is counterintuitive when trying to understand things in terms of cause and effect. I think many students make it through college physics without appreciating reversibility, and part of the reason is the baggage of cause-and-effect thinking, which is less of a deep principle and more of a heuristic that helps us follow the thermodynamic "arrow of time."

Reversibility can be simulated directly in systems like Norm Margolus's "Critters" cellular automaton, and I have often thought that discrete reversible systems should get more attention for just this reason.

CDP said...

Actually, the most rational explanation for the miraculous virgin birth of Jesus is the same as the explanation for the miraculous prophesies of the witches in Macbeth and the explanation for the miraculous transformation of Gregor Samsa in Die Verwandlung and the explanation for the miraculous resurrection of Melquíades in One Hundred Years of Solitude and the explanation for ...

CDP said...

Oops! Make that: prophecies.