Once again, the lecture was given by Prof. Robert Mann of Waterloo's physics department, and again was entertaining and comprehensible. (My only criticism of the delivery concerns the misspelling and mispronunciation of the word "verisimilitudinous", which was both displayed on the screen and pronounced without the first "i".)
Prof. Mann started by talking about three aspects of belief, which he classified as credulity ("other things being equal, things probably are as they seem"), simplicity ("other things being equal, the simplest explanation is probably the most likely"), and testimony ("other things being equal, things probably are as other people report").
He backed this up with a quote from philosopher Richard Swinburne, namely, "The rational person is the credulous person who trusts experience until they find it misleads them, rather than the skeptic who mistrusts experience until they find it does not mislead them." (not sure if an exact quote)
[I don't agree with either Prof. Mann or Richard Swinburne. We know that eyewitness testimony is remarkably unreliable; humans are just not good reporters of events that they witness, especially after a long period of time has gone by. There is a huge literature on this; I just mention one paper here. It is certainly rational to be very skeptical of eyewitness testimony, especially if it is about extraordinary events.]
Prof. Mann then talked about a "knowledge bootstrap". In a "hermeneutic circle", "to understand we must first believe; to believe we must first understand". In an "epistemic circle", "knowledge is controlled by Nature; Nature is revealed by knowledge". As an example of "hermeneutic circle", he gave quarks. There is no direct observation of fractional charge, yet quarks are useful to explain sub-nuclear phenomena.
As an example of "epistemic circle", he gave wave-particle duality. Understanding, he said, requires "a mutual conformity between the act of knowing and the object of study". Strict skepticism is a limited and unfruitful strategy.
Understanding God: we need to be firm enough in our thinking so that God doesn't mean anything we want, but open-minded enough to be receptive to the counter-intuitive character of the Divine.
Attributes of God: Wikipedia lists 26, but he can boil them down to 4: God is
- ultimate, infinite
- personal, loving
[What does it mean to say a god is "infinite"? Infinite in what sense? Infinite in extent in the universe? Infinite in time? How would a loving god consign people to hideous and prolonged deaths through earthquakes, tsunamis forest fires, and so forth? Here is an example where "things probably are what they seem" points to either multiple gods, or a god that hates people.]
What kinds of proof of God could there be?
- mathematical: deduction from premises
- legal: inference from testimony
- scientific: induction from observation
Proving things in science:
Paradigm (Kuhn) - normal science means solving problems within an established framework
Falsification (Popper) - science can only rule out what is false
Anarchy (Feyerabend) - science uses whatever methods work
Research Program (Lakatos) - science proceeds by core foundations surrounded by auxiliary hypotheses
Challenge: what is at the core? what is at the periphery?
Proofs of God's existence
- cosmological argument: causes imply a causer
- intelligibility argument: nature's comprehensibility implies designer
- ontological argument
- aesthetic argument
- regularity argument
- moral argument
[Here, however, Prof. Mann just speeded through what I would consider the core part of an answer to the question "Is there a God", taking only a few seconds. More argument is needed! And you would never know that these arguments are considered extremely weak by many philosophers.]
Who or what set the boundary conditions of the universe. We have a cosmic beginning - is that suggestive of a cosmic originator?
Are we special? Is our universe a typical specimen? Are the special features the thumbprint of a Designer?
Fine tuning of physical constants: if the neutron were just 0.2% lighter, all protons would decay, so there would be no atoms. If the neutron were just 0.2% heavier, no element beyond hydrogen could form. This "fine tuning" suggests a designer.
[This kind of argument doesn't seem remotely convincing to me. We have no idea currently how universes form. Maybe there is only one universe; maybe there is only one possible universe. Maybe there are infinitely many universes. Maybe there are uncountably many universes. Maybe the constants are linked. Maybe it is possible to have life just from hydrogen alone. It seems premature to make any conclusions at all when our knowledge is so incomplete.]
It's difficult to be objective about the search for God. He quotes Thomas Nagel: "I want atheism to be true."
[Speaking only for myself, I don't have much emotional investment in whether there is a god or not. I'm not sure the concept is even coherent! I was raised as a Christian, and haven't changed my attitude on ethics very much since I discarded it. Confucius and Hillel the Elder advocated the essential ethical core before Jesus.
Having a person that you can always rely on in terms of need, who would comfort you or help you solve your problems, is certainly attractive, and I think it might be nice. But on the other hand, the Christian god as depicted in the Bible seems to me so completely depraved that the world would be a horrid place if he existed as depicted there.]
[To sum up, while the talk was entertaining, I think it would have been better to simply go through the six "proofs" he mentioned, giving their strong and weak points.]