What's behind it all? An unnecessary discussion

Last night, I attended an event hosted by Wycliffe College at the University of Toronto. The topic was supposed to be What's behind it all?

"Has a scientific explanation of the universe replaced the need for God as cause of its origins? Could life on our planet exist apart from divine intervention? Is there evidence for a designer?"

Discussing the event at the reception afterwards, the general consensus was that the evening was a waste of time. Well, that was the point of view of the audience. Presumably with a reasonably full Convocation Hall at $18 a ticket, someone must have been extremely pleased with the outcome.

So what was the problem? The event was poorly planned on almost every front. Assume for the moment we can forgive the ticketing mishap where the hundreds of people who purchased advance tickets were still required to pick up tickets by waiting in line with those who had not bought yet leading to massive lines and a 25 minute delay in starting the event. That is sort of typical of large academic institutions; they know they want your money, they're just not entirely sure what to do with you once they've got it.

The evening became largely an opportunity for the speakers to talk past each other. With an event scheduled at two hours, each of the three speakers (more on them in a moment) was offered a 25 minute opening statement, followed by 5 minutes to respond to what the other two speakers had said. This was supposed to be followed by a 15 minute free form exchange between the three. Between the delay in starting, some issues getting power point presentations up, that left a paltry 7 minutes which they used to field a grand total of 2 audience questions. So not only was it barely necessary for the audience to be there, it was barely necessary for the three speakers to be in the same room.

The Speakers

The first speaker was Lawrence Krauss, a physics professor from Arizona State University. He has become a rather prominent public intellectual and the author of several important books explaining complicated modern science for a popular audience. He's also one of them "strident" atheists, friend to Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens. (At one point he jokingly claimed to be Hitchens' "personal physicist"... Where can I get me one of those?) He was also the speaker who clearly came with the largest cheering section.

The second speaker was Stephen Meyer, a... philosopher (?)... from the Discovery Institute. This speaker falls firmly in the "What the hell were they thinking?" category. The Discovery Institute promotes a strange fringe theory called "Intelligent Design". This is one of those underhanded attempts to dress religion in the guise of science, or probably more appropriately the philosophy of science, to sneak it into school classrooms. Totally unable to gain any academic acceptance of his findings, Dr. Meyer has resorted to publishing two large academic seeming books (Darwin's Doubt and Signature in the Cell) released for the public.

The final speaker was Dr. Denis Lamoureux, a professor from Alberta with three doctorates and a strong Christian faith. His presentation seemed to involve presenting a bunch of bits of evidence for evolution following each one with a footnote explaining that it's really okay to still believe in god anyway.

It was a rather confusing assembly. Two of the speakers were there to discuss evolution; one in the context of a religious framework and the other trying to bash it as a failed hypothesis. The third was a theoretical physicist. Each one was faced with two interlocutors who weren't qualified to offer an informed critique of their ideas. It's hard to see how the organizers saw any meaningful discussion coming of this. Add to the fact that Dr. Meyer is clearly a controversial character in science, a theologian badly disguised as a philosopher of science, it seems clear that Wycliffe was trying to go the way of Fox News, stirring up controversy for the sake of selling tickets to an event.

Opening Remarks

Dr. Krauss, as far as I'm aware, didn't say anything that was demonstrably false although he may have begun in a way that some may consider to be in bad taste. He began by pre-emptively discrediting Dr. Meyer, outlining why Intelligent Design had been repeatedly discredited and read some of the rather scathing remarks from the judge's ruling in the pivotal 2005 court case surrounding ID in Dover, Pennsylvania. Some may consider it rude to attack what you assume your interlocutor is going to say, but it seemed appropriate in this instance. The Discovery Institute gains a veneer of credibility by one of their representatives taking the stage at a respected academic institution that they don't deserve.

Dr. Meyer tried to explain the thesis of "Intelligent Design" which is rather difficult because near as anyone can tell, ID is simply a marketing campaign designed to put a theistic spin on the "Argument from Ignorance" fallacy. It attempts to make the leap from "We don't understand how this could have happened" to "A god could possibly have done this by mechanisms we don't observe and don't understand" to "A god likely did this and we can now claim we understand." The spin campaign is based on several things:

Quote Mining - Anyone who has read the published works of Charles Darwin knows that he was fond of a particular rhetorical device. He would grab attention by pointing out a particularly difficult challenge to overcome (say for example, how impressively the eye is "designed") and then springboard from there into an explanation of how that challenge can be overcome perfectly reasonable ways. However if you leave out the explanations, you're left with a series of excerpts that appear to say Darwin had no faith in his idea to explain anything.

Misunderstanding Probability - Humans are generally lousy at intuiting the answers to questions involving probability. Part of the problem is that very small changes to the wording of the question can result in huge changes in the answer. Dr. Meyer was obsessed with the probability of finding particular folds of protein in design space by searching randomly. He made an elementary mistake with conditional probability. The question is not "What is the probability that such protein folds can occur as a result of a mindless random process?" (Ignoring the fact he ignored the non-random component of natural selection). The questions is actually supposed to be, "Here we are, made of these proteins... what is the probability that those proteins originally formed by a mindless unguided process?" Superficially, they seem like the same question, but the way you answer them is entirely different. Essentially Dr. Meyer seems to have spent his entire presentation barking up the wrong tree. A similar misunderstanding played a significant role in the not-guilty finding from the OJ Simpson trial of many years ago.

Redefining Words - early in the presentation, he explained that when he referred to "information" in DNA, he was specifically not talking about "Shannon" Information [a reference to Claude Shannon, the founder of Information Theory]. Unfortunately, he never did get around to explaining what he meant by information or how it would be measured. As near as I can tell, information is rather circularly defined as patterns or arrangements we find (subjectively interesting but whose origins we are unable to explain by purely undirected causes. As an example, Dr. Krauss in the discussion brought up the hexagonal shape of snowflakes and that those also show signs of "apparent" design, but Dr. Meyer specifically said that those arrangements didn't constitute information because we could explain the hexagonal shape in terms of the physics of the interacting water molecules. So it seems information is defined tautologically as arrangements science can't explain which leaves intelligent design based entirely on the "God of the Gaps".

Full Disclosure: Unfortunately (or suspiciously, depending on your level of cynicism) Dr. Meyer was struck by a rather severe migraine headache part way through his opening statements and he had to stumble a bit through his opening remarks, not getting in everything he had planned to say, and often reaching for words and sources.

He did attend the reception afterwards, presumably feeling better. I actually tried to ask him what he meant by information since I've never heard a coherent definition of "information" as used by creationists and I refuse to spend the money to buy the books on Kindle and indirectly support the Discovery Institute's work. Unfortunately, he hung around for a few minutes, signed a few books and promptly retired for the evening.

Dr. Lamoureux offered the most confusing presentation. As I mentioned it was "evidence for evolution" with footnotes saying it was fine to believe in god... and the Christian god because... reasons. He was very open and honest that his belief was the result of faith. The King James Bible defines it as:

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. -Hebrews 11:1

He actually went so far as to say that we are better off because the findings of science do not overlap with the account  in the bible because then we would have proof of the existence of god and then we wouldn't need faith. Apparently we are so deeply accustomed to the idea of a mysterious hidden god that we have actually deluded ourselves to believe that hiddenness is a virtue. Or as the saying goes:

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Fait is one of those curious forms of socially acceptable dishonestly. A person who claims faith admits to holding beliefs that they have absolutely no right to believe based on the available evidence but they are going to believe them anyway. However because it has the label faith it's somehow acceptable dishonesty, like answers to the question, "Does this outfit make me look fat."

I did wind up feeling badly for Dr. Meyer because it seemed that his two opponents recognized that he didn't belong at the event and he was being attacked, almost to the point of ridicule, from both sides.

The Moderator

The moderator, Karen Stiller, was largely invisible through the evening. That is to be commended because moderators are, at most of these events, useless. But someone needs to read the speakers bios, so there. The only thing which was curious was when it ultimately did come time to answer questions from the audience (which had to be submitted by twitter or email) she ultimately chose two questions which were strangely dissociated from the topic and not entirely comprehensible English. It was a very strange and anti climactic way to end a rather frustrating evening where nothing got discussed.

The After Party

The Reception (which I'm choosing to call an after party to make it sound cooler) was a fun casual get together. Luckily by allowing the event to run late enough the turnout was manageable and it was still possible to mingle.

The Future

It seems there are more events like this in the pipeline. It would be nice to see Wycliffe learn from some of its mistakes so it can put on a more productive evening next time.

Update - The event was actually recorded and is available to view online. You can check it out if you like:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mMuy58DaqOk]

Thanks to WhyEvolutionIsTrue for pointing that out.