Tuesday, 10 April 2012

The evolution of a conversation: Krauss And Dawkins at ANU: A Recap

Before I begin, I would like to make the disclaimer that my memory is far from perfect and nothing here is a direct quote, and therefore, this is only a recap of the evening, not a full fledged report. With that in mind, allow me to clear my throat and proceed.

Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss should need no introduction, but for those that do not know, Richard Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist, who is most well known for being the strange combination of British and an atheist. He is also known for being outspoken, and considered by quite a few religious people as rude and abrasive.

Lawrence Krauss is a particle physicist with his hands in cosmology (he worked/works on neutrino astrophysics) and an outspoken anti-theist. From my experience he seems to be more offensive (perhaps he would prefer the term direct) than Richard Dawkins, but also a lot funnier.

Well versed in the rites of Dawkins and familiar with Lawrence Krauss's awesome talk on the concept of a universe from nothing, I was pretty excited when I heard that both of them would be coming to the ANU (Australian National University - where I study), to have a discussion. The tickets were free and "sold" out fast, even after the venue was changed to one of the largest venue's on campus: Lleweylln Hall.

After some anticipation, the calendar finally ticked over to the 10th of April, a cold, clear, chilly autumn day. With my free ticket printed out and stuffed reckless into my pocket, I approached the venue, melding into the cacophony of noise and people, all waiting for the doors to open.

Ushered in by the uh....ushers, my friends and I took a seat in the spacious auditorium, waiting for the event to begin. After thirty minutes, the lights dimmed and, rather anti climatically, the weedy Vice Chancellor of ANU, Ian Young (Darth Ianus to all ANU students), glided across the stage to the microphone, and began the brief opening:

"Welcome to ANU, I would like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of this land,  Richard Dawkins has a whole bunch of honary degrees, and Lawrence Krauss doesn't."  - This was basically the gist of Ian Young's opening remarks.

Finally the two renowned atheists, or critics of religion, entered from stage left, Lawrence Krauss' red converse sneakers adding a dimension of "I'm a physicist, no really!" to his stage presence.

They sat down in their rather superior looking armchairs, and began their conversation for the evening. The first topic of discussion was in fact, the reason they enjoy holding discussions, moderator free, over debates. Dawkins probably summed it up best "A moderator tends to stop things just when they are getting interesting." This flowed rather naturally into a discussion of Dawkin's appearance on Q&A the previous evening (see here), in which he went head to head against George Pell, the Australian cardinal for the Roman Catholic Church. They discussed some of Pell's moments of excellent ignorance (including that Neanderthals were descendants of humans, as oppose to cousins), which led to Krauss making a cruel but hilarious joke about Pell being a Neanderthal, which sounds harsh, but if you watch the Q&A footage, you'll see Krauss has a point.

This led on to a discussion of common misinterpretations of evolution, before the conversation bounced back towards Pell, and his comments about Lawrence Krauss' new book, A Universe From Nothing, including Pell's discussion of Richard Dawkins foreword, despite the fact Richard Dawkins wrote the Afterword, and this is stated on the front cover of the book.

The conversation then moved towards how physics has begun to move away from common sense, with Dawkins giving an evolutionary explanation about why both Relativity ( the physics of the super big and super speedy) and Quantum Mechanics (the physics of the super small) defy our common sense: saying that our minds evolved to understand a world situated between the macroscopic and the microscopic. Both Dawkins and Krauss mentioned their awe that the brain can even do physics and complex mathematics (well, complex to us humans), something it never really evolved to do.

The conversation then shifted towards the idea of rationality and irrationality in religion and God. This was sparked by mention of Lawrence's debate the previous evening with an Islamic scholar, (as Dawkins said "In my country a scholar is someone who has read more than one book), in which his opponent spent a lot of time insisting on the rationality of religion and belief in god. Dawkins and Krauss were quick to explore and exploit this argument, Krauss asking if believing an illiterate peasant being visited by an angel is a logical procession of events, or if have a religion based on the word of known con man saying he found gold plates in the ground, and translated them in a hat, was also rational  thing to believe. As far as pure logic goes, Krauss presented an example of syllogisms that can become redundant:

Tom is human
Humans are mortal
Tom is mortal.

If humans become immortal, the second premise changes in response to science, thus presenting a problem for carrying on with logic and syllogisms of the past. Dawkins then presented the idea that religions could be internally consistent, but this was meaningless, as rationality would ask for external consistence as well.

Staying on the topic of religion, they next point discussed was the issue of comfort and religion. Dawkins briefly mentioned the power of belief, via the measured effects of placebos, but was also quick to point out that a double blind test had been preformed on the power of prayer, which yield no results, until the patient was told that they were being prayed for, at which point their recovery rate was worse! Dawkins also noted that science provides physical and perhaps emotional comfort through modern medicine and treatments.

The conversation then drifted towards science and spirituality, both Krauss and Dawkins mentioning that they found comfort in the idea of there being a final end, and mentioning that to them looking up at the night sky in all its glory, "opens your mind to wonder", as Krauss put it. They also emphasized that control and freedom is liberating, and that religion places as you back under the control of a being. God is, as Christopher Hitchens use to say, an eternal parent who never lets you grow up. Krauss also mentioned that there is fulfilment in science and that the exciting thing about science is that "we don't know all the answers", briefly talking about the question of conciousness  and the fact our brains are "ten million million times more efficient" than a computer, noting that a computer would need ten terawatts of power to run a full simulation of the brain, yet our brain uses just ten watts of power.

There was then a brief and humorous aside about Dawkins attempts to obtain tax exemption for his foundation: The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science (trying say that ten times fast), from the board of British Charities, who ask Dawkins to "Kindly explain how science education benefits humanity".

The conversation then shifted back to religion and about the privileged position of religion in society. Dawkins recounted tales of children being kicked out of sunday school for asking questions (which makes it a bit misleading to call it a school) and Krauss mentioned the important role ridicule plays in society and in allowing us to point out the inconsistencies of ideas and people.

Following this, came what I refer to as the Dawkins Impetus, though I am sure he would reject such a term. Dawkins ask the audience to go out and make some question their belief, or a part of their belief. Ask a Roman Catholic if they truly believe the wafer they have at holy communion becomes the body of Christ. And don't let them say "You can't criticize my beliefs!"

Following this Krauss then asked Dawkins what the hardest thing had been for him to accept intellectually. Dawkins replied it was the fact that Hippopotamus' are close cousins of the Whale, and are far closer to whales than they are to pigs, something traditional zoology would reject, but which was proven in molecular biology.

Dawkins then asked Krauss to answer the same question, to which Krauss replied "The possibility that the laws of physics are an accident."

It was approaching question time, and as Dawkins and Krauss wrapped up, Krauss delivered what I would call The Krauss Impetus, although it was more of a hope and a desire than an impetus: "I hope that you have at least one idea you hold dear proven wrong."

The main bulk of the discussion was now over, and question time began. I've watched enough debates and talks about religion from atheists to know that there is always at least one rambling question and one totally insane question. Tonight was no different (ANU you are not special).

The first question of the evening asked if Krauss and Dawkins thought that religion's man centric view of the world had helped foster an indifference to environmental issue in society. Krauss reckon it did, but said it was also worth noting that there were religious environmental groups and Dawkins said it was probably a bigger challenge to achieve global political unity on tackling the issue.

The second question was someone saying that they wanted to question Dawkins and Krauss' faith in science. Dawkins mentioned you can't prove anything 100%, but science does a lot better than religion which proves something 0%, and Krauss mentioned that science works and has "progressive refinement", it changes based on the evidence. Both emphasized that science was fundamentally different from religion.

 The third question ask if there was only a rational path to truth, and if truth was cultural. Dawkins argued that the truth of science is universal, and Krauss was quick to say that there are no absolute truths in science, only absolute falsehoods, the elimination of which brings us closer to the truth.

The next questioner was clearly a philosophy student, complete with a hipster like skinny-ness and a bad haircut, and asked, after name dropping Nietzsche, if atheism exists in a theological framework. Krauss' response was to say that neither him nor Dawkins deny religion, they merely argue that the evidence suggests the existence of a god is unlikely.

"Will we ever be able to disprove god?" Was the long and short of the next question, Dawkins suggesting it wouldn't matter, given a poll where Christians said they would not stop believing in Jesus even if zero historical evidence was found for him. Krauss simply stated that if something is not falsifiable, then science cannot address it.

The next two questions were probably the most interesting question asked all evening. The first one probed Dawkins' on what he thought of his idolization and his being quote verbatim in the internet,and if he was even aware of it, to which Dawkins replied he thought the idea of idolizing and making an absolute authority figure of someone a horrible and disturbing idea. Krauss' take on the question was that he had no problem being quoted but one must avoid simply appealing to authority.

The next question asked what Dawkins' favourite story in the bible was, with him replying he didn't have a favourite story, but  favourite books, namely "Song of Songs" and "Ecclesiasticus", if only because they have some beautiful lyricism, especially when read in 17th century English.

The final question of the evening rambled on a bit ,but basically asked what success for atheism would look like and if it is achievable? Should we be working towards co-operation with religious people, instead of making enemies?

Dawkins' response was that there is a lot to be said for putting aside differences and working towards a common goal, but if your aim is to understand, then religion is counter to that goal. Krauss summed it up by saying that as a scientist you cannot compromise, but as an educator religion is irrelevant, and creating interest in science is what matters.

With that the evening wrapped up, and someone who was distinctly not Ian Young gave the closing remarks, thanking both Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss for giving up their time, and ending with "thank you, goodnight and may your god go with you." A quote from comedian Dave Allen .

So concluded the conversation between Lawrence Krauss and Richard Dawkins, and yes the line for the book signing was long, the evening air was cool, and 3 hours later I found myself talking about free will in a Mcdonald's. Because life is absurd. And awesome.

Much thanks to Roy Cruz for the photos. Here's a ridiculous photo of Richard Dawkins :

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