Thursday, March 03, 2016

James Tour's First Talk: Nanotechnology and God

The dilemma of the scientist who is also a devout Christian* is clear: on the one hand, in his/her professional life the scientist must explore the natural world and rigorously apply skepticism to his/her conclusions. The scientist is always asking, "Could there be some other explanation I haven't thought of?". On the other hand, the devout Christian is required to accept an incoherent and nonsensical theology, and to renounce other reasonable explanations for the events that supposedly occurred in the New Testament. Skepticism is replaced by faith.

This is one reason, I suspect, that Christians are more common in the physical sciences and less common in fields like anthropology, psychology, and sociology. A really serious anthropologist or sociologist or psychologist who is a believer would be, I suspect, consumed by trying to understand the personality, motives, and characteristics of the Christian god, and that can only be done with some rigor through a scientific study, which the Christian is explicitly forbidden to do by Matthew 4:7, Deuteronomy 6:16, and Luke 4:12. In contrast, the chemist, geologist, or physicist is able to compartmentalize his/her beliefs more successfully. Believing in Jesus is not going to strongly impact your experiments if you are studying the properties of organic compounds or the interactions and decays of baryons.

Compartmentalization is the key word here, and it was very much in evidence in last night's Pascal lecture. To say it was a lecture is somewhat overstating the case. It started with a commercial (for James Tour's lab and its admittedly excellent work in nanotechnology) and it finished with pure Christian evangelism. Given that the title was "Nanotechnology and God", I was expecting a somewhat more polished segue between the two topics (although it was too much to hope that he might have remarked that both topics concern the vanishingly small). There was none. Prof. Tour went in one sentence from a summary of his work on nanotechnology to a story of how he became a Messianic Jew. Along the way he admonished the audience in various ways: to abjure pornography, to pray for personal success, to read the bible every day.

Here are a few of the things that Prof. Tour seems to believe, as I understand it. First, that the "fact of the Resurrection is overwhelming". (I don't think he uses the term "fact" the way I do.) Second, that he obtained his wife because he prayed for one and his god granted his wish. Third, that he was offered money to buy more software (through some supernatural intervention?) because of his virtuous refusal to break the license of software he used on other machines. Fourth, that he prays before every course lecture and scientific talk that his presentation will be wonderful. Fifth, that he prayed for the success of a disliked colleague and this resulted in the success of the colleague and his transfer to another university. Honestly, it was really hard to not laugh at all that.

I find it fascinating that such a scientist -- evidently extremely clever -- can successfully convince himself that there is a supernatural being, the creator of the universe, who is so obsessively concerned in that scientist's success and life that he (the god) arranges things so that departmental money to buy software arises (because of the scientist's virtue) and so that rival colleagues get offers to leave.

I did get a chance to ask a question. After hearing this litany of successes that Prof. Tour had achieved through prayer, I asked him what percentage of things he prays for don't come true. He was unable to provide a figure. This is compartmentalization again. A scientist would, I would think, want to know this important fact. Do certain kinds of prayers work better than others? Does the time of day affect success? Is success actually greater than chance, or does Prof. Tour simply forget about the prayers that don't come true? Does it help if the prayer is said in certain languages? Are prayers for oneself granted more often than prayers for others? What happens when two equally virtuous people pray for opposite outcomes?

Another thing that I was able to establish was that Prof. Tour, despite being a signatory to the Discovery Institute's notorious "Scientific Dissent from Darwinism", has never read a college-level textbook about evolution. In my opinion, this is irresponsible (but not surprising).

In short, although Prof. Tour is a good speaker who clearly has done excellent work, his religious beliefs seem (to me) to be childish and unwarranted. His personal version of prosperity theology is laughable. The event was largely evangelical and not intellectual in nature, and is inappropriate to be sponsored and endorsed by a public university that accepts students of all faiths. It was, in short, another embarrassment.

* I phrase it this way to avoid the ambiguous term "Christian scientist".


Mikkel Rumraket Rasmussen said...

"Second, that he obtained his wife because he prayed for one and his god granted his wish."

But according to most christians, god cannot or will not mess with human beings free will. So either mr. Tour is married to a non-human or god has violated his rules?

lukebarnes said...

I largely agree, except for your bizarre interpretation of Deuteronomy 6:16 (which is quoted by Matthew 4:7 and Luke 4:12, so it's really only one reference).

"Testing" here is in the sense of presuming upon God's patience by doing evil or giving God orders. My 6 year old "tests" me by repeatedly trying to steal cookies or by demanding sweets, not by want to know more about me. The idea that this precludes a scientific study of anything is a gross distortion of the text. Your interpretation of "test" would make nonsense out of Judges 6:36-40, Psalm 34:8, Psalm 78:18,41,56, Psalm 95:9, Acts 5:9, Acts 15:10 and 1 Thessalonians 5:21 - "Test all things; hold on to what is good." Actually, your account of Tour's account of "prosperity theology" sounds like testing God by presuming upon "personal success".

I note that in your previous post you say "it's completely inappropriate for a secular university to evangelize for a particular religion in this manner." Would it be inappropriate for a secular university to criticise a particular religion? Is the case against a religion prohibited, or only the case for?

Jeffrey Shallit said...

I think it's inappropriate for a secular university to evangelize for any religion. By this, I mean I do not feel it is appropriate for them to officially sponsor events where attendees are told to read the Bible, or the Koran, and so forth. And I also am very specific that this only refers to the official acts of the university, not to classes or student groups or anything similar. I would have no objections to the Pascal lectures if they were organized by students or groups of faculty members or anything like that; only that they should not carry the imprimatur of the university. In this case the Pascal lectures were actually sanctioned by the Board of Governors of the university.

I cannot think of any case where a secular university, in its official function, has criticized a particular religion. In any event, criticism of a religion is not the same as evangelizing for a religion. In the latter case, people are told explicitly what to believe. In the former case, criticism is just criticism; you can take issue with it or not.

Mark said...

I, too, prayed for a wife. It worked--I got my neighbor's wife, my customer's wife, and my boss's wife.
Isn't this the same sort of thing that was being pushed by someone on Oprah Winfrey's show? If you wish for something, you will magically get it? Not too dissimilar from Rev. Ike and his ilk selling the Prosperity Gospel.

JimV said...

"both topics concern the vanishingly small" - I enjoyed that.

To Mr. LukeBarnes: thanks for that interpretation. I have been told more than once that "God doesn't do tests" (in response to things like the prayer studies) and thought that was the approved interpretation; I now have a refutation.

No doubt you have an answer for this as well, but I found "My 6 year old "tests" me by repeatedly trying to steal cookies or by demanding sweets" interesting because the example given by the Biblical god was to kick the kids out of the house the first time they disobeyed him. Apparently you don't agree that was the right thing for a parent to do, since you used the word "repeatedly".

One answer might be that the Genesis story was metaphorical, to which my response would be, surely God could have thought of a better metaphorical analogy without any questionable ethics.

Mikkel Rumraket Rasmussen said...

"God doesn't do tests" is the quintessential ad-hoc post-facto rationalization when tests falsify god. Every thinking person instinctlively and immediately realizes this when they hear this crap.

It's the same kind of after-the-fact rationalizations you hear from all other forms of quacks and nutters when their pet conspiracy theory fails every test imaginable. It will never stop being amazing to me how adult human beings can't instantly see through this shit.