The first surprising thing was that I arrived at the room, PHYS 150, only to find the venue had been moved to MC 4020. You'd think the organizers would have updated their flyer, but no, today it still says the old room.
After walking to the new room, I was also surprised to see the number of people there for the lecture. By my estimate, there were about 120 people, including about 20 people standing.
The first lecture was entitled, "Doesn't science disprove Christianity?", by Prof. Robert Mann of the physics department. He is a good speaker, and his talk was frequently humorous and largely easy to follow (with the exception of his strange pronunciation of "analogous"), but didn't really address the question in much detail. I summarize below, with my comments in brackets.
He started by giving an example of the question "Why is the sky blue?" as something both science and religion could answer. A scientific answer might be something like "Rayleigh scattering". A religious answer might be "God made it that way", but he doesn't find that a useful answer.
Science is about "what is", Prof. Mann claimed. It is about how things work and constitutes public knowledge. It is objective, having nothing to do with emotions or political predilections. It is about measuring and quantifying things, and constitutes an "I-it" relationship with the universe.
Faith, Prof. Mann said, is about "what ought to be". How can things be different from what they are now? It is about "why" questions, not "how" questions. For example, "Why do I have feelings of awe when I stand in front of a mountain?" It constitutes private knowledge, is subjective, and is not concerned with measuring things. It is about quality vs. quantity. It is about an "I-Thou" relationship with the universe. All religions are concerned with, "What is of ultimate value?" and "What should be the rules of how we live our lives?"
[Here Prof. Mann contradicted himself right away. On the one hand, he claimed science could not answer "why" questions; on the other, he gave as his very first example the question "Why is the sky blue?", to which he then proceeded to give a scientific answer! Furthermore, one of the most famous Christian books is Francis Schaeffer's "How Should We Then Live?" -- a question that, despite its first word, presumably is intended to be religious and not scientific in nature. I sat in on a course Prof. Mann taught some time ago, where I pointed out that this "how/why" dichotomy is almost childishly simplistic and wrong, but he continues to use it.]
[Furthermore, I would contest the claim that faith represents "knowledge". It represents "belief", to be sure, but "knowledge" seems overstating the case. How exactly can such "knowledge" (claimed to be "private" and "subjective") be tested in any meaningful way? When it is tested, we find it is wrong. Christians frequently claim, for example, that intercessory prayer is effective; yet the tests of this claim return negative or inconsistent results.]
Science and theology, Prof. Mann claimed, are cousins. They are both concerned with rationality, contingency, novelty, and incompleteness.
Rationality: why is the world rationally transparent? [I know from previous experience that Prof. Mann finds the arguments of intelligent design creationist and physicist Guillermo Gonzalez intriguing. Gonzalez's thesis is that the universe is specially designed for scientific inquiry, and the Earth is in a privileged position to make scientific inquiry possible - hence god.]
[Personally, I don't think the world is "rationally transparent". If anything, it is largely "rationally opaque" or at least "rationally translucent". Here is one example from Prof. Mann's own field. One of the very simplest physical interactions we can think about is the problem of mutual gravitational attraction among three bodies. Yet there is no closed form known for the solution to the three-body problem! We do not even know whether the solar system is stable or unstable.]
[And here is another example. Suppose, at the beginning the lecture, I introduce a single molecle of Oxygen-18 at the very center. Dividing the lecture hall into four equal sized square sections, which section will the Oxygen-18 molecule be at the end of the lecture? What could be simpler? Yet we can't answer this very basic kind of question with any certainty, because there are just too many interactions. How does that make the universe - a far more complicated system - "rationally transparent"?]
Science, Prof. Mann said, is about "reason and experiment", but faith is about "reflection and revelation". Science is about "increasing complexity" as we dig deeper. Religion is about "increasing depth". The "universe appears to be structured for endless possibilities". [I find it odd for a physicist to claim that, when the heat death of the universe is one fate that might await us -- so much for "endless" possibilities.]
Religion is about novelties - why do little things "surprise us by joy?".
Wigner spoke about the "unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics". [I'm not convinced at all by this. It seems to me that physicists are trying to model the universe, and it is not very surprising that some models work better than others. If dance turned out to be better, we'd all be exclaiming about how wonderful it is that ballet is so effective at modelling the universe. And, as above, even in the most simple cases, we quickly find limits to our mathematical description of physical situations.]
Prof. Mann claimed that when scientists worked on nuclear weapons, "most did so without considering the consequences" because it was a good scientific problem. [Not really. For one thing, it was more an engineering problem than a science problem. I've read a number of books about the Manhattan Project, and his claim does not seem to be accurate. Oppenheimer, for example, had serious misgivings about the A-bomb.]
Prof. Mann claimed that "suicide bombers are not scientifically illiterate". [Actually, I'd bet they are. Most probably could not state, for example, any of the basic results in evolutionary biology. They might have some engineering knowledge, but engineering is not the same as science.]
[Prof. Mann spent a lot of time talking about the commonalities between religion and science. But to me, it is the differences that are starker and more important. One of them I can sum up in 7 words: "Science books have errata. Holy books don't." By this I mean the following: If, let's say, we discover an error in Newton's Principia, we don't go on teaching it as if nothing happened. We correct it. If errors occur in books or papers, we routinely admit them and correct them. But when has a Christian ever said, "Well, we used to believe x in the Bible, but now we realize the Bible was wrong about x?" I'd be curious to know if Prof. Mann can name a single thing in the Bible he thinks is simply wrong.]
[Here's another important difference between science and religion. Science has accomplishments. Not only that, but scientists are largely in agreement with what those accomplishments are. Ask any scientifically literate person about the great breakthroughs of the last 100 years, and you'll get largely the same list. In physics, relativity and quantum mechanics, for example. In biology, the structure of DNA and its role in genetics. In geology, the theory of plate tectonics, and so forth. But what are the great religious breakthroughs of the last 100 years? Can Prof. Mann name even one?]
Let's hope the remaining lectures are more serious.