Wednesday 25 January 2012

Some Views of "A Skeptical Look at Atheism"

As many of you are aware we had Professor Andy McIntosh come and talk to us at Birmingham Skeptics in the Pub on “A Skeptical Look at Atheism”. Andy is an Emeritus Professor in Physics, specialising in thermodynamics and is also a Young Earth Creationist on the speakers list for Answers in Genesis. His talk was, to say the least, different to the usual that we have at Skeptics in the Pub. The Q and A session wasn’t nearly enough to address everybody’s questions and comments and so we thought we would crowd-source a few for interest. I was going to summarise and edit the views sent in but I don’t think I can do that fairly and keep all the excellent points that the contributors made. I apologise therefore for this mammoth post but please stick with it as there are some great points made and some interesting news at the end.

Our first review came from Andy McIntosh himself via none other than Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis! Surely we’re the first Skeptics in the Pub group to get a review by that particular person. Imagine if we could get him over to talk!

You can read Andy’s
review here, he seems to have enjoyed his opportunity of preaching to the largely unconverted and was happy that his combination of scientific and philosophical argument was listened to and may have planted seeds of faith.

Lets contrast that with this excellent review sent in by Mil:

OK, before I start I should mention that I didn't stop for the second, Q&A part. I needed to catch a train - I don't live in Birmingham, because, given the choice, you don't live in Birmingham.

The thing about Professor McIntosh's talk - and I honestly don't say this to mock - is that it felt like watching someone go incrementally insane. Putting aside his opener about the feather (presumably included because he could not resist catching Richard Dawkins saying that he, Dawkins, had 'faith' in something), the first half of the lecture was informative and within striking distance of well-reasoned.  Whether one finds McIntosh's conclusions sound and persuasive or not, it did address the matter of the creationist invocation of the Second Law of Thermodynamics as a bar to evolution. The typical response to a creationist saying entropy must increase is to simply reply by finishing the sentence - 'in a closed (or isolated) system'. And that's generally the end of it: the creationist goes off to find another half of a sentence to use, and you can sit back and have a biscuit while you wait. Professor McIntosh explained why such a brisk dismissal of his position mischaracterised it. He, of course, is aware of what the law states and that the Earth isn't an isolated system; his argument rests, rather, on energy that's 'useable' by what he refers to as 'machines'. This is all fair enough as a clarification of a subtler argument, drawing on established scientific principles and so on.

That was the starting point. The finish was that Jesus is our Lord and the eye-witness accounts in the Bible prove it.

It really was like watching someone descend into delusion before your eyes. My internal response to the things he was saying followed this sort of path: "OK... Ahhh... Um... Eh...? What...? *What*...? WHAT...? ARGGGHHH!" At the beginning what he's saying at least appears plausibly worth addressing; in the middle he's, for example, telling us that atheists have no response to the arguments CS Lewis puts forward in 'Miracles' (so he's now reached what one might - generously - call 'shaky ground'); by the end it's the kind of stuff that wouldn't fly in a Year 10 classroom debate - I expected at any moment to hear the words 'Pascal's Wager', 'There are more of us than you', and 'Hitler'.

Professor McIntosh seems like a decent chap, he has genuinely-held beliefs, he's laudably keen to engage with those of differing views, and he's no doubt orders of magnitude a better mathematician than I am. Yet as the talk went on his reasoning simply fell to bits in breath-taking fashion. The room listened, and everyone really, really wanted to be polite, but towards the end there was a distinct rippling noise from the crowd - no one was actually interrupting, it was rather the sound of two hundred people all furiously trying to bite their tongues.

It was great to have a speaker who wasn't preaching to the choir, though. I'm very glad the Birmingham SitP invited Professor McIntosh, and I'm glad I went to listen. I have, however, not changed my position on the place of 'Intelligent Design' in school science lessons.”

It might come as a surprise to some but not all the skeptic regulars are atheists. One of our greatest supporters is the wonderful Abby who sent us this review from a Christian Skeptic perspective:

“As Christians neither me nor the friends who joined me on Weds, are literal creationists, and I have heard that nearly all mainstream Christians within the sciences refute creationism too (one even wrote of being cured of it) so I had my doubts as to how we’d find the evening, but that particular argument wasn’t really dwelled on during the evening. As I’m not highly qualified in science, here’s a more technical response from a couple of my friends who came along from church,  one’s a physics  teacher, and one’s a biologist, currently doing a PhD in immunology.

Both friends said that there was nothing contained within the evening that they hadn’t already thought about themselves. However, they said the science did seem to have a point:

The physics teacher says that indeed, "Thermodynamics says that entropy will always increase (everything tends to a state of maximum disorder) - which is seen in nature (physics at least).

The biologist tells me; in agreement with a sceptical counter-argument I heard following the talk, that entropy actually increases the amount of information. However, she said we have to ask ourselves what kind information there is in random noise, something structured / self-producing... It’s all very well it being 'information' but it’s got to be the right kind and that’s where the entropy argument comes in as it also refers to energy. To create the structures of life, you have to have energy.

However, both people, like myself, thought that the talk could have been presented in a much more clear and engaging way, making the relevance of what he was pointing out a little more self-evident (without needing a resident physicist and biologist on hand, guilty as charged). The biologist said “I was a little annoyed he didn't delve deeper. He was almost a little patronising constantly saying that he 'wouldn't go into that”. We all said we know this is difficult though, as by its very nature it’s specialist stuff, and he didn’t always have the time to expand.”

From our comments section Tituslivius gave us this succinct and pointed view of the night:

“I was expecting something a bit more heavyweight than this. I was mystified by one of the arguments presented (actually an ad-hominem attack) concerning Richard Dawkins' response to a question about the structure of a feather. We were only given half a sentence, without context, of what Dawkins was supposed to have said, and then invited to draw the inference that his entire stance was thereby compromised. Nothing was proved or even demonstrated by it. I would be interested to hear from people who stayed for the question session”

Also from the comments, Gurbie0 addressed some of the scientific and moral arguments presented by Professor McIntosh:

“His comment on how, according to an atheist view on the human mind (in that atheists don't believe in a separate 'soul' and our thoughts are just 'chemical reactions'), it would be possible to tell what someone was going to think using a large enough supercomputer was very interesting. I don't know enough about brain mapping or supercomputers to know whether this would be possible, but I can see how hypothetically it could be. However, even if it were possible I don't see what McIntosh's point was. He seemed to think that just because he found the idea disturbing that the idea was therefore flawed. He used a similar argument when talking about another aspect of the human mind, where he said that seeing humanity as 'chemical reactions' seemed 'miserable'. I'm sure some people do find the idea miserable, but that does not mean it's not true. Just because you don't like an idea does not decrease its validity.

He spoke about 'information', the point of which (as far as I understood it) was that a 'code' (such as that carried in DNA) could not exist unless a message existed prior to it. Then the message could be put into code, and then interpreted somewhere else. Of course if this were true then DNA could not have evolved or appeared naturally, as it would need a message provided by something else. McIntosh suggested that this initial message must have been provided by God. This idea can be debunked using a simple analogy: I, or a computer, could write down 20 entirely random letters, without any 'message' written into it or any code devised. This could then be given to someone, and that person could devise a random letter substitution system in order to 'decode' my sequence of letters (e.g. a=t, b=e, k=d). This, almost certainly, would just give a sequence of letters just as random as the original code. However, if the person did this 10 million times, devising a new decoding system every time, then one of those time would almost certainly result in a sentence with meaning, and 'information', even though the was no 'information' in the original code. That is how DNA could arise, with natural selection 'picking out' the meaningful sequences from the nonsense.

He seemed to think that atheism gave no explanation for 'morality' or altruism. Of course these things are easily explained by evolution, but since he had already decided the science proved evolution impossible he must not have considered this. He also assumed that atheists agreed with the idea that there is an absolute morality, which of course many do not, and many have very different ideas on the meaning of the term 'morality'.”

Our previous contributor Mil posted this response to Gurbie0’s comments:

“... your mention of McIntosh saying one could “tell what someone was going to think [in fact, be able to tell *everything*, not only thoughts, in advance] using a large enough supercomputer.” What he was doing there was simply giving a microprocessor face to ‘Laplace’s Demon’. The notion can be criticized on the basis of it being, mathematically, impossible for any such ‘all knowing predictive thing’ to exist. Which, IMHO, misses the point very badly – it’s like saying that ‘infinity’ is a false concept because you can’t build infinity as there’d be nowhere to put it. The other major criticism of it is that causal determinism is mugged by quantum randomness. Now, some argue that so called quantum randomness isn’t, or has not been demonstrated (and could never be demonstrated) to be truly random - Galen Strawson, for example. That, IMHO, again, misses the point too, though less badly. What’s at issue here is freewill, and introducing randomness doesn’t save freewill – chance is not choice. So, it doesn’t matter very much that you (and I) aren’t experts on brain mapping and supercomputers. You’re gleamingly correct: the real rubbing nub of the issue is McIntosh’s focus not on whether something is correct or not, but on whether it’s preferable. He might as well say, “Reality worries me, so I’m going to believe in something else instead.” Which – I’m sure you’re ahead of me here – could explain his position on quite a few other things too.”

Personally I wondered how somebody so sure about their ultimate answer (God) could look at any science totally objectively. It seemed to me that the science of the talk quickly gave way to his faith and that the latter was the stronger of the two. He obviously has a better grasp of physics than I do but to establish the kind of belief that he has you would have to discredit or ignore the consensus of scientists from multiple disciplines including geology, biology, astronomy and palaeontology to name but a few.

This topic is far from over and you don’t need to let me have this final word. You can continue to contribute to the discussion, we welcome any comments that you would like to make. For those of you that couldn’t make the event, or aren’t quite sure you did actually hear what you thought you heard, we’ve produced a DVD of the entire talk which should be available at our February meeting. It has a snazzy cover designed by Paul Bryant (@thebigyeti), photos by Simon Brettell (@simonbrettell) and video editing by Chris Richardson (@christheneck). You can watch the talk and the questions unedited, free to throw peanuts or shout at the screen from the comfort of your arm chair Let us know if you want a copy and we'll try to bring enough along. The cost will be £3 if you buy direct in person or with added cost for postage and packing if you live elsewhere. You can email us at skepticaldvds (at) gmail (dot) com or via our contact page.

We’re not uploading the talk because the speaker doesn’t want us to and because we don’t want to. We appreciate the work that our speakers put into their talks so if we do video them we’d rather not dilute their future impact by uploading, (although if it was a homeopath perhaps diluting would make it more effective). If you’re interested in buying one of the videos any profit made will, as always, be put back into Birmingham Skeptics in the Pub so that we can continue inviting great speakers and plan for even bigger and better future events.

Patrick (@paddyrex)


Tony Ryan said...

Shame the talk isn't being uploaded.
Excellent review of the talk though.

Unknown said...

Sounds like it was a cracking event, really sorry I missed it! I really appreciate the write-up and posts of the discussion. Good work Paddy et al!

Andy said...

@Abby: Your friends are quite right that increasing disorder does represent increasing information, but also that that isn't necessarily useful. The missing "magic" ingredient is natural selection which (as mentioned in Gurbie0's comment) picks out the meaningful/useful combinations from the jumble, and it is that process that forges the way for successful evolution of ever more complex biological "designs".

@Paddy: Really excellent evening and such a great idea of bringing in a speaker from the other side, so to speak. I am very pleased that we left a good impression with Prof. McIntosh. Respectful engagement is so much more a positive way to exchange ideas than a "The Big Questions" sort of slanging match. :-)

@Tulpesh: Your friendly company is always missed... :-\