Thursday, October 25, 2007

Debate at Waterloo

Tonight I debated Kirk Durston at the University of Waterloo on the topic, should a scientist believe in god? Eventually I'll post my slides and other information here, but for the moment, you can use this spot to post comments about the debate.

Here's my closing statement. I didn't get to read all of it because of time constraints (we were given only 5 minutes). If you read it, you will see the great debt I owe to P. Z. Myers and Carl Sagan.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Ridiculous Public Warning Signs

The Manifesto Club has a new campaign, Attention Please, to point out the absurdity of some warning signs in public places. Week 1 has a small collection of photos of silly warning signs, including one on a cactus that says "Caution: These plants are covered in sharp spikes that may puncture the skin if touched. DO NOT HANDLE".

I think they could use a much larger set of submissions, so go to it!

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

On Being Twice a Square

The last time my age was twice a square, I got married.

The time before that, I became of legal age.

This time around, my wife Anna decorated a finite automaton cake to celebrate. I shared it with my 4th year class on formal languages and parsing.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

If Only All Theists Were This Modest

I've always been impressed with my colleague David Seljak's honesty and forthrightness. He's a professor at St. Jerome's University, a Catholic "church college" affiliated with the University of Waterloo. He sent me the following comments by e-mail and graciously allowed me to post them here:

"Christians ought to remember that normal, thinking people do not automatically see the sense in their claims. Indeed believers ought to be a minority. Even Paul says in his letter to the Corinthians. "but we preach Christ crucified: ...foolishness to Gentiles". This stuff is supposed to sound crazy to you guys. After all, we Catholics believe that if we eat the flesh and blood of a Jewish zombie who died 2000 years ago, our invisible friend in the sky will save us from death. :) Faith does not come "naturally"; that is why we call it a "gift". We should hardly be surprised when a number of people say, "no thank you, that sounds ridiculous." It seems to me that Christians should be a lot more humble about our truth claims and a whole heckuva lot more charitable to people who don't take them up."

I daresay that if all Christians were this honest and humble, the conflict between theists and atheists would dry up.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Taner Edis visits Waterloo

Taner Edis, a professor of physics at Truman State University in Missouri, and the co-editor of the anthology Why Intelligent Design Fails? visited Waterloo briefly last Friday. He gave at talk at Wilfrid Laurier University, down the street from me, on "Science and Religion in Islam". This is a topic of his recent book, An Illusion of Harmony.

I've known of his work for quite a while, but had never heard him speak in person. Edis is noteworthy in part because of his Turkish roots, which give him some insight into the Muslim world's flirtation with pseudoscience and creationism. And he is an extremely fair writer, in the model of Ed Brayton, who always tries to understand the other side's position and summarize it accurately.

He started by pointing out that different sciences have converged, through separate paths, on naturalistic explanations for the world. ( If I may quote Stephen Weinberg, "religious skepticism is not a prejudice that governed science from the beginning, but a lesson that has been learned through centures of experience in the study of nature." ) These explanations cast doubt on the reality of supernatural beings.

Scientific materialism, therefore, is a threat to modern religious belief, although technology itself is attractive. There are two kinds of responses: try to show that science supports religious belief (say, by finding passages in the Koran that supposedly presage modern scientific developments) or argue that "true science" is compatible with religion.

While there are many Christian sects that support a young-earth creationist view, in Islam, the old-earth creationist view predominates. There is a strain of Islamic creationism that originated in Turkey but has become popular world-wide. As an example, Edis passed around a truly revolting tract by Harun Yahya entitled Fascism: The Bloody Ideology of Darwinism.

Edis discussed two science-related "urban legends" that are widely repeated in Islamic communities. One was that Jacques Cousteau became a Muslim after observing that there is a salinity barrier in the Mediterranean which is supposedly mentioned in the Koran.

Edis pointed out that Muslims who advance pseudoscience are not opposed to all science and technology. As an example, he cited the Nur movement, whose followers are very pro-technology.

Edis stated that Darwinian evolution, particular human evolution, is not widely accepted in Islam because a naturalistic process with random elements is unacceptable theologically. Islam differs from Christianity in that Christianity has a large number of moderate sects that view science as a separate domain, while Muslims typically see science as subordinate to the revelations of the Koran. Liberal Muslim views are much rarer than liberal Christian views.

Edis pointed out that Muslim countries are very weak in science, although applied science does better than basic research. Those who point out that creationism is pseudoscience are labeled as "secularist".

Altogether, I found Edis' talk to be informative and well-presented. I can't say as much, regrettably, for the questions that followed. I was startled at how incoherent some of the questions were, and some questioners didn't seem to listen carefully to his replies, apparently preferring to base their remarks on caricatures.

A Muslim woman who said she was a professor of chemistry at Wilfrid Laurier (probably this professor) made two statements. First, she said that, as a chemist, she saw no conflict between science and her religion, because Islam instructs its followers to be seekers after truth. Second, she disputed the title of the talk, saying that "Science and Religion in Islam" was misleading because the talk was not about the true Islam. In other words, she employed the "No True Scotsman" fallacy.

In reply, Edis correctly observed that chemistry enjoys a slightly different position than physics or biology. Some aspects of physics and biology (e.g., cosmology, evolution) provide explanations for the world that are significantly at odds with religious claims. Chemistry, however, seems to intrude less significantly into what has traditionally been perceived as religion's domain.

Edis rebutted her second statement by pointing out that, as a non-believer, for him there was no "true Islam", but only a variety of different Islams as practiced by different religious groups. He said it would be arrogant for him to pick one of these Islams and declare it as the true Islam; that was for believers to decide. His concern was to examine Islam as it was actually practiced.

Another Muslim questioner heard Edis' response about chemistry and didn't seem to grasp the distinction Edis was making, saying that he had dismissed chemistry as less important than biology or physics (something not even remotely implied by Edis' reply). The same questioner dismissed the theory of evolution as just one explanation among many.

It was an interesting afternoon, and I only wish I had had more time to discuss with Edis after the talk.

Students Want Me to Do Their Homework

I often get e-mail messages from students in other countries. They pose a problem to me and ask for its solution, and they usually include a note to the effect that this is for their "personal research".

Now, I don't want to be hard on the students. After all, maybe some of these requests are genuine. As a young student, I occasionally wrote to famous mathematicians (or people I thought were famous mathematicians) with questions, and I was often pleased to get a reply. I still treasure postcards and letters from people like D. H. Lehmer and Daniel Shanks. I would have been very hurt and insulted to get a note saying, "Don't ask me to do your homework for you", because my questions always derived from my own adolescent research.

Nevertheless, I'm often suspicious of these requests, because my guess is that most of them come from students who are too lazy to do their own homework problems, and want me to do them instead. E-mail has made it feasible for a student to receive a homework assignment, search the web for people working in that area, pose the problem to a professor, and get a result back, all in less than 24 hours -- in plenty of time to hand in for a homework assignment. That wasn't possible when communication was by postal letters. And there is definitely a different flavor between a genuine research problem (which I often receive from colleagues) and the kinds of questions these students ask.

So what to do? My solution is to respond that I am happy to answer these questions if the students ask the question again in a month. That way, if the question comes from a homework assignment, in a month the answer probably won't do the cheating student any good. If the question is genuine, and the poser really wants to know the solution, waiting a month won't hurt too much.

I throw it open to my audience: what other possible strategies are there for answering these kinds of queries?