29 October 2010 (Friday) - Astro Club

And so to the astro club. Tonight was the Annual General Meeting, and because it was, the entire committee stood down to be re-elected. For appearance’s sake, with the committee stood down, I got to be Acting Chairman for the purposes of re-electing the chairman. I told the club that they were in trouble now that I was in charge, and I couldn’t nominate the old Chairman quickly enough. He was immediately seconded and unanimously re-elected. My tenure as Acting Chairman lasted for about two minutes, but in all honesty it was an important two minutes. It would have been just as easy for the Chairman to have done the election, but having had me come up and take over, if only for two minutes, made sure that everything was done properly. The election of the rest of the committee shortly followed, and the entire AGM was over within twelve minutes. We then moved on to the main speaker. Tonight’s talk was by a chap who’s been art the club almost as long as I have, and there’s not many have been there that long.

In retrospect I feel somewhat cheated. The talk was entitled “Faith or Science. Or both”, and was billed as a Christian’s way of reconciling current scientific thinking with established theological opinion. The talk started very well as the speaker reviewed (and dismissed) various definitions of the term “Faith”. He then explained that a “Faith” had five pillars on which it was supported, and without those five pillars it would fail. Everyone was amazed to find the first pillar was “Reason”. It was a shame that this wasn’t elaborated on, but such is life. The second pillar was “Experience”, and I suppose it should be so. The third pillar was “Tradition”, but for some reason the speaker made a good job of ridiculing the whole concept of religious tradition. The fourth pillar was “Bible”, and that was presented as though it was self-evident. The fifth pillar was where the rot set in to the argument.

Revelation” was the fifth pillar. “Revelation” being the Almighty communicating directly with humanity, either as a whole, or on an individualistic basis. Apparently since there were no witnesses around before the first man was created, any information about such a time before the first man must clearly be directly imparted from the deity. This stood to “Reason” (!)
The speaker then went on to say that the earliest Bible stories are often in line with the teachings of various other ancient cultures and therefore must be true. Somehow the fact that the earliest Bible stories are also often at odds with the teachings of various other ancient cultures also proved that the Bible must be true as well. One lives and learns…

The chap then went on to explore the scientific method; in which an idea is formulated, tested, and if found to be wrong is then abandoned. Apparently scientists don’t always follow the scientific method, and he quoted the case of Professor Fred Hoyle, who clung to the steady-state theory of creation long after the evidence for a “big bang” seemed to be overwhelming. Somehow the fact that one Professor held on to his pet theory for a few years conclusively disproved the entire concept of “scientific method”.
Professor Hoyle was wrong. Big deal! Over history, lots of scientists have been wrong. That’s how it works. It was a shame that this line of reasoning was concluded at this point. At no stage did we dare to attempt to apply any scientific reasoning or testing to the religious ideas.

We then had a slight interlude in which we were played a segment of an episode of Star Trek in which Lt Cdr Data broke the Prime Directive. We saw an interesting moral dilemma, and it was suggested that God doesn’t intervene in human affairs more often as He is bound by the Prime Directive as well.
For no adequately explored reason, this view is utterly consistent with God’s supposed intervention in the believers’ daily rounds (see pillar of belief #2 - “Experience”)

Then I got really confused. There is an old adage that if an infinite number of immortal monkeys played with an infinite number of typewriters, then eventually one of them would come up with the complete works of Shakespeare. They probably would, I suppose. But the given scenario is clearly artificial and nonsensical. Somehow that strengthened the position of “Faith” whilst undermining that of “Science”. I would dearly love to explain how that worked, but I’m afraid the logic escaped me.

We then turned our attention to an old chestnut – the Anthropic Principle. Basically this argument is that if the speed of light were only slightly a little bit different, and if the force of gravity were only a tiddly bit different (and so on for every physical characteristic, and force that there is) then the universe wouldn’t be here, or if it were then it would be utterly inimical to life. Therefore God made the universe perfectly for us to live in.
Personally I subscribe to the converse of this argument - it could be that life (and we) exist *because* the various physical constants of the universe are how they are.
This isn’t a point that anyone can answer convincingly either way, and rather than giving credence to either side of the “Faith vs Science” debate, it just muddies the (already murky) waters and would probably have best been left alone.

At this point the lights were raised and a polite round of applause went round the hall. On the one hand I salute the speaker for daring to take on such a controversial subject. On the other hand I’m rather disappointed that he didn’t do his homework. In my more lucid moments I am a Chartered Scientist, and I have a degree in mathematics so perhaps I have an unfair advantage. But the talk was given to an astronomy club in which the audience wasn’t by any means uneducated. And I honestly believe I could have done a better job of defending his religion than he did of attacking (my) science.
If he truly wanted to rubbish science he could have mentioned some really weird science. For example the Heisenberg uncertainty principle in which it’s impossible to know both the position and momentum of a subatomic particle. Or better still he could have cited Godel’s theorems which basically state that any kind of attempt to explain the universe is doomed to failure.

My feeling was that the talk was given at what I might unkindly describe as a rather basic level. The speaker did tend to subscribe to the view that science is only an idea, and did push that concept; somehow implying that because science was only an idea, somehow that made his religious views more plausible.
But rubbishing science is easy. I do it all the time (I’m allowed to; he’s not!). However having dismissed science doesn’t automatically prove the existence of the rubbisher’s chosen deity, does it?

After an hour of this, hawking the raffle came as a blessed relief….

1 comment:

  1. Glenn told me he spoke up a bit too soon and he says he is really sorry.
    He did apologize to the speaker and he seems to be feeling bad about it.