Month: July 2013

The Nature of Evidence: Science vs. Religion

Lawrence Krauss has a new op-ed in the LA Times criticizing the Catholic Church’s loose definition of what constitutes evidence. As you probably know, being named a saint requires the sufficient demonstration of at least two miracles, and the late Pope John Paul II recently met this requirement by “curing” a woman in Costa Rica in 2011 (of what, the article does not say). A panel of doctors ruled that her recovery was otherwise inexplicable.

The problem, as Krauss notes, is that inexplicable remissions happen in medicine somewhat frequently. Are all of these miracles, or is it more likely there is still some aspect of these diseases we still do not adequately understand (remember that medicine, despite the authoritative white lab coats worn by its practitioners, is a relatively recent discipline just now finding its footing as a science)? The Catholic Church is all too ready to declare instances like this “miraculous” without ever considering the more likely alternatives. This stands in direct contrast to the scientific ethos, which gives as much attention to trying to prove ideas wrong as it does to trying to prove them right.

In the mid 1800s, a miraculous appearance of the Virgin Mary was reported in Lourdes, France. Millions have since visited that site in hopes of being cured of their ailments, physical or otherwise. The Catholic Church has kept records of any claimed cures in Lourdes, and more than 60 have been ruled “miraculous”. Of course, it’s not difficult to compare this figure to the number of visitors to the site, year in and year out, and to compare that figure to the average spontaneous remission rate in most cancers and popular diseases. Unfortunately for the church, the latter number is actually higher – meaning, essentially, people who don’t visit Lourdes actually have a higher chance of spontaneous cure than those who do.

Between standards of evidence, there is probably no wider gap than that between the Vatican and science. Claims of miracles are not trivial – if true, they would indeed point to a higher power, and of something beyond our everyday experience. Therein lies the importance of being skeptical, of not settling for substandard evidence in the form of personal testimony or “God of the gaps” arguments (ie. we can’t explain it – therefore, God). As Carl Sagan summarized so well, we have to be careful not to yield to personal preferences in our search for truth, and acknowledge that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

Krauss’ Full Article Available Here: Pope John Paul II and the trouble with miracles – July 7, 2013 – LA Times

Add Gervais to the New Atheist Club

Do you know what the “new” atheist movement is missing? A brilliant comedian. Enter Ricky Gervais, creator of such television hits as The Office (UK) and Extras. He’s made his blasphemous views known for quite some time (see here and here and here), but over the last month or two he seems a little more vocal via Twitter, where he has some 4.8 million followers. Recent gems include:

I would love to see Gervais get even more vocal and participatory, perhaps in a formal debate with a theologian. That sounds loony, but he’s intelligent and could hold his own – it might also be a breath of fresh air to see someone stop pretending that all views are equally valid, and to mock the superstition, contradictions, and unsubstantiated claims various faiths cling to. Momentum continues but the loss of Hitchens as one of the most powerful voices has left quite a void – I’m not suggesting Ricky could fill it, but I know he could make it much funnier.

#gervaisfornewatheistclub

Is death really so bad? Yale’s Shelly Kagan explores one of our deepest fears…

While skimming the comment sections of a post by Jerry Coyne, I was turned onto this debate between philosopher Shelly Kagan and Christian theologian William Lane Craig. A little more study revealed this may be one of the few debates WLC has ever “lost” with an atheist, and I have to agree that he seemed taken off his game a bit by the informal setting and by Kagan (see a brief review here). I’m not sure I was convinced by Kagan’s argument that an atheist can have any kind of “objective” morality in the sense Craig is advocating for, though I am also not convinced that humans need objective morality, and finally I’m unconvinced that objective morality under theism is any more tenable (Why, for instance, is something good solely because God says it is? What if He were to say rape was good, would that make it objectively moral?).

In any event, I was sufficiently intrigued by Kagan to look up some more material, and found the video below that centers on death, given right across the street at Southern Methodist University. His main points can be summarized in this article, but for an even briefer taste, here are some of the questions he explores:

  • Why is death bad? (not the process or prospect, but death itself)
  • Is death intrinsically bad (like pain), or instrumentally bad (like losing your job and that leading to poverty), or is it comparatively bad (watching TV when you could be at a great party)?
  • If death is bad for you, when is it bad for you? It can’t be bad when you’re alive. Can something be bad for you if you don’t exist?
  • If you reject the existence requirement, can’t it be bad not to exist? If so, what about all the potential people who will never be born? Are we committing a great moral crime by not spending all our time trying to bring as many people from nonexistence into existence as possible?
  • And so on…

I have almost no background in philosophy, so I’m trying to ease myself in and Kagan’s a perfectly accessible and entertaining teacher to do that with. Additionally, his popular course at Yale, “Death”, is available for free on Yale’s Open Course site. I’m planning to check it out in the near future…provided I don’t die…which would or wouldn’t be bad for me?

Lawrence Krauss to Debate William Lane Craig – Thank You, Australia!

I’m surprised but very pleased to learn today that physicist Lawrence Krauss and Christian apologist William Lane Craig have agreed to a three-part debate series in Australia to take place this August. Details here. Each night will focus on a different topic:

  • August 7th, “Has science buried God?”
  • August 13th, “Why is there something rather than nothing?”
  • August 16th, “Is it reasonable to believe there is a God?”

Krauss of course is director of the Origins Project at Arizona State University, a respected physicist (there were Nobel rumblings at one point), and more recently a vocal advocate for scientific literacy. Along with Richard Dawkins, he will be the subject of the upcoming documentary, The Unbelievers (see Richard’s reason for not debating Craig here). William Lane Craig (or WLC) is a philosopher, theologian, and popular Christian apologist (though popular mostly with the public, not so much intellectuals – see post here). He also has a somewhat well-deserved reputation as a formidable debater.

The two have gone head to head before, but I think Krauss clearly “lost” in terms of style. You can watch the whole thing here, but be warned the audio quality is poor. Krauss is much too loose, informal, unprepared, and at times discusses scientific concepts in far too much detail to get his point across. That said, he’s gotten much better (I think this was one of his earliest attempts at debating a theologian), and you can watch a more recent debate here (Intelligence Squared) and his fantastic Science of Storytelling series here (featuring Bill Nye, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Richard Dawkins, and Brian Greene, among others).

I’m not sure who’s the favorite in this match-up. Looking solely at the last time they debated, I’d be forced to go with WLC, but if the format is informal, as Krauss prefers and WLC dislikes, then it could be very interesting. Directly below is a debate WLC had with philosopher Shelly Kagan, in which he looks more uncomfortable than ever because of the conversational style of the latter half. And directly below that video is a debate where Krauss got a little angry (they tried to segregate women and men in the audience at the start of the event) and took it out on poor Hamza Andreas Tzortzis, repeatedly calling attention to his ignorance of science and mathematics.

Here’s looking forward to August!