Field of Science

Live from 'Origins' at Caltech

So I arrived at the Beckmann auditorium at Caltech for Origins - the BIG Questions organized by the Skeptics Society. The advertised $5 book table was the table with creationist literature. The good ones were on another table (e.g. Donald Prothero's Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters), and were no less than $25 and up to way more. Snicker. Predictable, I guess.

"No recordings or pictures of any kind is allowed."
Michael Shermer announces there is also good news in the media: Ignobel prizes awarded:
  • Coke is a spermacide.
  • Earning potential of exotic dancers: average earnings higher when the women are at their most fertile. "Science at it's best."
  • Fleas that live on a dog jump higher than fleas that live on a cat.
  • Slime molds can solve puzzles.
  • Expensive fake medicine is more effective than cheap fake medicine.
  • Plants have dignity. Would seem to be a major problem for some vegetarians.

Donald Prothero is on first. He starts out by debunking the common creationist misconception that one can calculate probabilities after the fact of an event to argue that it's improbability makes it impossible without supernatural intervention (c.f. Hoyle's Boeing 7x7 in a junkyard). Interestingly, Prothero said 707, and noted you can tell how old an argument it is. It is usually said to have been a 747, which was made in the 1960's. Hoyle died in 2001. Not sure when Hoyle made the argument.
He then goes on to talk about science: Miller-Urey, amino acids, lipid bilayers. Moves into origin-of-life questions. RNA world. Imagine a mosh pit, in which the earrings and piercing are all going to link up, as a model of how the first DNA assembled.
To my horror, he just described archaebacteria as the most primitive life form, way more primitive than (eu)bacteria. And he shows an artists rendition of the tree of life where archaea is on the left, bacteria in the middle, and eukaryotes on the right, totally ignoring the fact that archaea and eukaryotes (plants, animals, etc.) are sister groups (more related to each other), and bacteria split off first, i.e. bacteria is - at least phylogentically - more ancestral. I'm sure that gave the wrong impression on a lot of these old geezers in the audience (average age must be over 50).
Earth was a "Planet of Scum" for most of it's history, ruled by cyanobacteria (prokaryotes, not eubacteria). Then a little about Margolis' endosymbiosis, which I just see for the first time was first theorized by Russian botanist Mereschkowski in 1905. Wikipedia rules - I consider half my non-existent B.S. in biology coming from the (print version of) Natural History Magazine, and the half other from wikipedia.
Anyway, that was six weeks of lectures in forty minutes.

Leonard Susskind is next. Who starts by saying that skepticism can be very close to dismissiveness. We get "all of particle physics in 15 seconds." He fumbles with powerpoint, and it all takes way more than 15 seconds. After a minute he is still on the gluon.
The whole thing is like a Rube Goldberg machine, meaning that it's all a mess, and there doesn't seem to be much sense to it. E.g. masses of the elementary particles doesn't seem to have any logic to them. Sounds like he's going to come to fine-tuning. Yes, gravity is just right, etc. Is this an accident, having nothing to do with life, or is it something else (he implies design). Too highly fine-tuned to be an accident, he says. The constants are just right: gravitational, cosmological, etc. Finely tuned... for life, that is. Yet he is no believer in design.
He jumps into the question of design. He presents the tree of life, and notes he hates to say "bush". Laughter all around.
On to compact spaces, those rolled up dimensions which enables us to have more than three space dimensions.
During the questions, one person suggested that it might not be that the Universe is fine-tuned for life, but that we are fine-tuned for the Universe. "I don't know," was Susskind's answer.

Paul Davies... Origin of the Universe. Quite frankly, I find this cosmology stuff rather tedious. It was one of the reasons that I didn't continue doing research in it. Davies' key issues: Does the Universe have a "meaning" or "purpose", or is it ultimately arbitrary and absurd, existing without reason? I can see where this is going. Whenever people phrase questions in this way, they are almost always people of faith. For these people, life without purpose is one of the main horrors that drives them to reject cosmology and evolution.
What caused the Big Bang, and what came before it? He thinks these questions are red herrings of theology, and I agree. If you answer that it was a physical process, you can always go deeper, asking what was before, etc. Augustine said both space and time was created - the world was made with time, not in time. Crucial distinction. But a trivial one for students of cosmology. It does not make sense to ask what came before the Big Bang, because time was created at that event. Personally, I think time is an illusion, which only serves to quantify how much change goes on in the spatial dimensions.
Take home answers: Can science alone give a complete account of the Universe? Not yet, but we keep trying. Does the Universe have a purpose? The Universe is about something. The Universe is an unfolding story. That's the real mystery. Bleh.

In the break, as I was charging my computer, I was observing a group of about eight young people gathering around a seated older guy, whose name-tag I could not read. They sounded from what I could hear like "science-skeptics". It really resembled acolytes with their master. Most of the time everyone's attention was on the seated guy, and they all seemed to listen carefully to his every word. I'll try to catch his name later.

Next is Sean Carroll from Caltech (not to be confused with Sean Carroll from UW-Madison of evo-devo fame). Physics, not biology. The nature of time. Entropy increases because there are more ways to be high-entropy than low-entropy. But why was entropy low to begin with? Which lands us at the beginning of the Universe. It was low at the Big Bang. The fact that we remember the past and not the future, that there is evolution, is that we are not in thermal equilibrium. We would be the same temperature as the Sun, and there would be no life. But the receive low-entropy radiation from the Sun. The question is why the entropy was initially low. Maybe it is added on by some individual, but he will not pursue that notion further. Thank him! (In my opinion there really is nothing further to say about it anyway, if one were to go down that path. Blind alley.)
He notes about Einstein, that when talking about his theory we should not be presented with a picture of him when he was 70 years old and let it all hang loose, but one from when he actually came up with his theory, when he looked young and sharp and someone used to cut his hair.
Carroll ends by completely dismissing any notion of a designer in science as unproductive. I was glad to finally hear someone say that.
Christof Koch's up. Heavy German accent. A real scientist. Conciousness, feelings, states about zomezing. Very hard talk to summarize because covered a lot of ground, but he basically meant to explain that we still need a theory on consciousness. 4000 years of philosophy has not brought us far. We need experimentation, which is a sentiment that I very much share applied to most philosophy, as it it mostly completely uninformed by reality. Philosophy of morality is a case in point. At the end he said that while he does believe in some sort of God to create the Universe (he was brought up a Roman Catholic, but left that faith behind). However, as of yet there is no need of the God-hypothesis to explain conciousness. He also mentioned that people with different eye colors see colors different. One of my sons have heterochromia iridium, and I can't wait to ask him if it's true.

After lunch Kenneth Miller starts off what is to become a panel discussion. Kenneth was of course a prime witness in the Dover trial (something about a sticker, believe it or not). There is some applause now praising the three Dover teachers who refused to teach intelligent design, but the group of young people I am sitting among right now are solemnly quiet. Some of them were among the acolytes I mentioned above. They are also all taking notes extensively (on paper).
Kenneth refers us to a debate in print between himself and Christopher Hitchens (God Is Not Great). He recommends it for at least the entertainment value - Hitchens is his usual self, he reports. Should be a good read. His talk presented the same logic that can be found in Finding Darwin's God, which is that philosophical materialism is just as unsupported as theism, and that theism is indeed compatible with all of science. As usual he completely evades the issue of the specifics of his religion. He is a Roman Catholic, and Yahweh is certainly a very intervening god. Just think virgin birth, sainthood, and a slew of miracles.

Nancey Murphy thinks it's better to talk about materialism or naturalism, instead of atheism, which is only against something (theism). I call myself an atheist because I believe there is no supernatural anything. On the absence of evidence. Yes, I could be wrong, but so far I haven't been, and those who have claims of miracles or anything else supernatural as described in scripture have nothing to show for.

Michael Shermer recalled that he has been called an "atheist without balls" because of what he wrote for Templeton. Reminds us that words are placeholders for a deeper meaning, as when we talk about the paranormal, whereas for theists it is the answer. To Kenneth: How do you know the Universe has no purpose, you ask. But wait, those who claim there is a purpose are the ones to show some evidence. How did you get the idea that it's from God? There is purpose and design, but only from the bottom up, not from top-down. Science works: if you want to go to Mars you use science. If you have another way, go right ahead. Laughs. To Nancey: What's the difference between an invisible god and a nonexistent god? Prayer might work, but if it does, it's in a way that we can't tell the difference. Why does God hate amputees? With all that praying for wounded soldiers, not one has grown back a leg. Who is it that says we'll be able to grow new limbs soon? Everybody shouts Ray Kurtzweil. Funny!

Stuart Kauffman seems to be absent, because now were at the panel discussion, and only Kenneth, Nancey, and Michael is on stage. I'm pretty sure my deduction is accurate.

Ken says he enjoys talking with Michael, because he, unlike many other atheists, assumes that he is talking to thinking person when speaking with theists. But I think he might be wrong on that assumption. Nancey gets the word and says "What I say is a little bit relevant." She's hilarious. She's trained in philosophy, and I mention that in my defense for not really understanding what she means. It sounds so theoretical, and... scientific. But now she says she has a prayer group, in which they once prayed for a participant to become pregnant, and two weeks later it happened. She also has a prayer chair (no link on Wikipedia for that one). She sat down in it, and a few moments later she got a phone call that she got the job she wanted. Michael objects "what about all the other applicants who didn't get the job?" She says that not too many people pray for amputees. More laughter. Ken says something, but I tuned out because I am worried of running out of battery. When he's done, one person claps.
The moderator now invites people to come to the microphones with questions, and eight seconds later there are two lines of a total of over twenty eager participants. Ken answers how he thinks God can be there when biological variation is random, and natural selection is directional. The questioner should have read his book, because the second half of it answer exactly that question. Ken then argues for the historical reality of Jesus, because the gospel spread so fast. How about the fact that there is no Roman records of his crucifixion (I think that should be crucifiction)? Q: What is God made of, who made him, and why does he need amputees to be prayed for, when he should know that they would like their limbs back? Ken says something in defense of God's non-intervention, and the group I am sitting in applauds excessively. This is hilarious.
As I get up to recharge my battery, I notice one of the guys in the group applauding Ken Miller is leaning over looking at my computer. That's great. If you happen to read this, welcome! Perhaps you can tell me who you guys are?

Hugh Ross: The Bible has over ten times as much cosmology as any other holy books. Biblical cosmology. He's an outright creationist, I can tell from his Bible quotes of cosmic singularity beginnings. Same tired old arguments. If space has mass, then it must be created by a causal agent. I never get what the origin of that claim is, except mere human experience. He calls on Borde, Vilenkin, and Guth to state that time is finite, and that everything must have a beginning. I'm sure he means every thing, apart from God himself, of course. Six different old testament authors talk about the expanding universe, so there. Apologetics. Zzzzz. Now he claims that currently knowledge slightly favors a closed universe. He quote-mines Lawrence Krauss about fine-tuning. It's like he wasn't here for the earlier talks on physics. He has a website. I am aware that both sides of the argument needs to be represented in order to make it a good meeting, but this guy is over the top. Enough about him.
Except to say that he now pulled out the Blount et al. paper on contingency in E. coli, which has been debated to death between Lenski and Schlafly, and many others, to surprisingly say that the non-recurrence of citrate digestion ability points to a designer.

Victor Stenger comments that he looks  forward to read Ross' paper when it comes out. Noether's theorem comes up, which leads to the statement that the laws of physics are just what they would be expected to be if they came from nothing. And then he finally says it:
  • Not everything that begins has a cause - at least according to modern quantum mechanics.
  • The Universe did not begin with a singularity, so it need not have had a beginning or a cause.
Kudos to Stenger. To answer why there is something rather than nothing: "Because nothing is unstable" (Wilczek 1980, SciAm).

"The discussion we've all been waiting for."
Ross finds more accounts of creation in the Bible than in the Quran or in the book of Mormons, which he takes to be a win for Christianity. I find many more in books of science, but I don't suppose that means anything to him. Stenger notes that Genesis 1 and 2 contradict each other, but Ross explains that 1 is chronological and 2 isn't. And that there is plenty of predictions of the future which have come true. Like "the book of Daniel, for instance", to which Stenger responds with a "what?" and sighs. Ross' answer drowns in laughter. It really is just a boring discussion about what the Bible says, now.
Last comments before questions...
Ross says his strongest argument is that the truth is revealed in the Bible and confirmed across all the sciences. Stenger thinks that God is not needed, is a meaningless concept, and that physical evidence is not better explained by a deity.
Question: What would be a pre-cambrian rabbit for your theory? Ross didn't get it. What would falsify your theory? Ross answers it would be the proof that humans are naturally made, that humanity has no spiritual dimension. That would be the end of Christianity.

Last one-sentence statements:
Murphy: "Nothing I know of science contradicts the essentials of Christianity (...)"
Ross: "Words of the apostle Paul: All things must be tested."
Carroll: "The world is not magic."
Miller: "There are two ways to look at the world: nothing is a miracle, or everything is a miracle. I choose the latter."
Stenger: "We are all frozen nothings."
Shermer: "Be skeptical."

Update 10/25:
I have finally figured out who the students I observed during the break were. They were from Azusa Pacific University, an evangelical christian college, and their professor was Michael Bruner:
Michael Bruner was born and raised in the Philippines as a child of missionary parents. He graduated from the University of Washington with a B.A. in English and received his M.Div. from Princeton Seminary. He is an ordained Presbyterian minister who currently teaches in both the English and Theology departments at AZUSA PACIFIC UNIVERSITY in southern California. He lives in Fullerton, California with his wife, Jenna, and their daughter, Belle.


  1. Just got back from there myself. You must be still on Mr. Deity. I didn't have the stamina, only slept most of 3 hours last night.

    That guy Ross was awful, and that christian lady too. Miller is great when he's talking biology, but I did notice how he didn't disagree much (though I'm sure he actually does) with the other two kooky christians out loud. That's what I got from it, that if they disagreed with each other too much, or at all, their whole religious position would be weakened, because they themselves can't justify each of their own beliefs any more than the other's.

    Besides Miller's great iPhone episode, I don't think I heard them disagree with each other too much, though there wasn't enough time, I wished someone asked Miller if he actually agreed with the other two kooky beliefs.

    By the way, just one correction, Shermer wasn't called an "atheist without balls." He said that's Colbert's definition of an agnostic, in regards to some point the previous lady (the christian lady) tried to make.

  2. I left before Mr. Deity too. Miller does disagree with Nancey Murphy and Hugh Ross on theology, I know. A reading of Finding Darwin's God makes that clear. To me his beliefs are crazy too, though, but at least his totally pro-science. I was amazed that Ross could present the improbability argument after it was thoroughly dismantled in the morning talks.

  3. The reason why Ross has built his entire Reasons to Believe ministry on the impotent argument from probability is because neither he, nor any of his fellow scientific theory snatchers, have a grasp of the fundamentals of probability theory. It is very amusing to see this argument stated again and again as proof positive that science supports the existence of the Christian God, but the argument will continue to be persuasive because humans have a critical lack of insight into probability and outcomes of the real world -- which, if we are made in God's image, means God has no grasp of probability theory either.

  4. Reason's to Believe has a local chapter I was invited to. After dismantling Ross's probability arguments I was met with bleak stares. I did not receive an invitation to attend future meetings.

    The RTB mission statement?

    "establishing a dialogue with non-believers, removing the doubts of skeptics and strengthening the faith of believers"

    I guess it is a one way dialogue.

    Ross has built a cult of personality around his non-science, that I assume it is very lucrative for himself and his associates. They use the authority granted by their advanced academic degrees to promote their ideas. Like Stenger, I look forward to Hugh Ross's next paper.

  5. "To answer why there is something rather than nothing: "Because nothing is unstable"

    I've got another one: there's only one way for there being nothing but an infinite number of ways for there being something. So the odds were against nothing (1 out of infinity) ;-)

    As for Miller who responds to the amputee challenge by saying that God is a non-interventionist, well, if it is so, then prayer doesn't work!

    So it seems to me that he has a problem: either he believes in prayer, in which case he has to provide an explanation for why praying for amputees doesn't work, or he believes in a non-interventionist god, which means prayer doesn't work. He can't have it both ways. No way José!

    And on that I apologize for massacering the Englishlanguage.

    Michel M.

  6. The archaeabacteria thing as the most primitive life forms is very disheartening. Oh well. As least he mentioned their esistence ..


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