On the taxonomy of Dragons

This is deeply nerdy but still oddly fascinating. AronRa gave this talk at DragonCon about how to fit the dragons of literature and film and fit them into modern cladistic taxonomy.

AronRa is a giant of a human who is physically intimidating and has this astonishing knack of churning out these 45-60 minute talks at an alarming rate. There are tricks that I’ve had in nearly every show I’ve ever done for over a decade and I don’t think I’ve ever seen him give the same talk more than once.

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Messages of Hope from a Juggler and a Magician

Magician Penn Jillette explains in this video how he converted to Christianity:

And then after a suitable awkward pause and the gotcha moment, he goes on to share a very sincere message of hope explaining what’s wrong with the term islamophobia and how to go about helping people you disagree with.

Maybe we’re doing this all wrong, trying to listen to politicians and academics. Maybe the way to a better tomorrow is by listening to magicians and jugglers.

The Non-Conference

This coming weekend, I’ll be performing at a rather unusual event — The Non-Conference. Contrary to its name, it is a conference. It’s a one-day conference for non-believers in Niagara Falls, Saturday, August 13.

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Speakers at the conference include Maajid Nawaz (who recently co-wrote a book with one of my favourite authors), Catherine Dunphy (a former executive director of The Clergy Project, Scott Clifton (I’ll let you figure out on your own why they invited a three-time Emmy winner General Hospital cast member) and several more. If you’re free to attend, it will be a terrific event. Tickets are $159 for the day.

My part comes in at the special sit down VIP dinner on Friday, August 12 where guests have a chance to sit down with the speakers. I’ll be doing some good old fashioned magic with a skeptical bent. I believe there are still a few tickets left for the dinner.

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Photo by Irina Popova (with Godel’s ontological proof of the existence of God in the background)

 

I’ve found the Church for me

I was raised on Monty Python. British comedy just tickles me in all of the right places. So I’m delighted that John Cleese, one of the groups five surviving members, is starting his own church. Of course it’s satire… although I’m tempted to tithe a small amount anyway.

In recent years, Mr. Cleese has been very publicly interested in human psychology, in particular applying that psychology to creativity. You’ll see some very pointed remarks about human nature that are most instructive.

Just a con game?

I just came across this video from Big Think with Maria Konnikova which is very interesting. (Full disclosure, I haven’t yet read her recent book on cons but it’s in my pile.) The video is provocatively titled What Do Con Artists and Religious Leaders Have in Common?

The claim is that we have an insatiable hunger for meaning and certainty and that con artists are prepared to provide that — although not necessarily honestly. While I agree that religion superficially satisfies the hunger for meaning and certainty, even in the presence of better explanations, I’m not entirely sure that’s what con artists do.

I’m currently reading a different book on cons: The Art of the Con by R. Paul Wilson. The principle force driving cons, according to that book, is not satisfying a thirst for meaning, but offering potential financial rewards — offering what can be loosely classed as “investments” that have essentially zero return so you are essentially handing your money over in whatever quantities they can get from you.

On the other hand, about twenty minutes before I was reading this, I found his formula for convincing people to accept false information. It’s framed, not quite correctly as an equation: X + Y = Z when it really should be something more like a syllogism. Either way:

is the conclusion you want your mark (victim) to agree with.
is a fact that is verifiably true.
is a fact which is false.

X and Y taken together imply your desired conclusion, Z

The idea is that if you can provide legitimate sources for X, and Z is desirable (you want it to be true), then people will just quietly accept Y without questioning it too much. And when you try to reverse engineer your own thinking, you feel as though you’ve just carried out a proper logical argument because X + Y really does imply Z. You don’t realize that the reason you accepted Y as true is because you wanted to believe Z was true. It makes the argument circular in a way which is extremely difficult to detect.

This is most definitely not how you do logic, but that’s the point. It’s about convincing people to believe things for irrational reasons. I see this used all the time by people who are trying to use logical arguments to convince you of religious truths. So perhaps that’s what they have in common.

The Big Picture: Sean Carroll Explains It All

I recently completed Sean Carroll’s most recent book, The Big Picture: On the Origin of Life, Meaning and the Universe ItselfIt is, undeniably, one of the best books I’ve read in the past few years and one that I will start recommending to everyone forthwith.

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It’s a book written entirely about physics which somehow manages to be a book about religion in spirituality. The closest comparison I can think of is Richard Dawkins’ The Blind Watchmaker. It demolished a large number of rather deeply held religious beliefs, not by attacking them, per say, but simply by explaining what we actually knew about science.

Carroll is a theoretical physicist and cosmologist that works at Caltech. (I found out in one of the interviews that the desk in his office used to belong to one of my other heroes, the late Richard Feynman.) What Watchmaker did for biology, this book does for physics and cosmology and it’s been long overdue.

Most people who stop learning about science in high school simply don’t know just how much we actually know about the universe. It’s very easy to make the (fallacious) leap from “I don’t know” to “nobody knows” without skipping a beat. But the information is out there, and has been for a very long time.

Spirituality and religion survives largely by leveraging the unknown. Narratives about how the universe began and what happens after we die survive because very few people are willing to put in the years it takes to learn the science to prove them wrong. And for the most part, science stays politely silent in what is usually called “tolerance”. But — as is extremely well explained in the book — the science that definitely disproves notions like the existence of the soul, the afterlife, and an anthropomorphic deity that takes an interest in our lives is really well understood.

It’s gotten slightly worse in recent years because of the magical-sounding properties of quantum mechanics. They’re only magical when they’re poorly understood, so it’s nice to have someone who actually understands them and their predictions explain them.

But establishing what we know is only part of the book. In the latter sections, he outlines the consequences of these scientific facts for more philosophical matters like meaning, purpose, free will and morality. It’s a wonderful resource to have all of this addressed in one place.

If you don’t want to splurge for the whole book, the author gives a fantastic interview at Inquiring Minds that’s worth checking out. The interviewer, Indre Viskontas, says that some of the later sections actually made her cry. I didn’t go quite that far, even though I cry at mostly anything, but I still definitely recommend the book, more or less to everyone.

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:

Thanks to WhyEvolutionIsTrue for pointing that out.

CFI Canada Winter Solstice Celebration

Last night at a special bonus instalment of Magic Tonight, we were joined by a group from the Centre for Inquiry Canada celebrating the winter solstice and raising money for the centre.

The holiday season can be difficult for skeptics, freethinkers and atheists, particularly those spending time with religious family members. It can create a feeling of being left out and so it’s a pleasure and an honour to be able to provide a place for like minded people to celebrate and have a good time. On top of the magic, we celebrated The Flying Spaghetti Monster and all present were touched by his great noodly appendage!

This year secular organizations like CFI have been busy this year fighting for freedom of expression and freedom from religion around the world. In particular, CFI Canada has helped bring a number of free though refugees and their families to escape religious persecution around the world and make their way to Canada. The best way to support them in their work is to join CFI Canada.

For those who were interested in attending but weren’t able to make it because of other holiday commitments, take a look at some of the fun we got up to. There may also be some video coming later in the week.

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Magic Tonight runs weekly at the Crimson Lounge in downtown Toronto, every Sunday night. Readers of this blog can use the discount code cficanada for a discount on the price of tickets and dinner when purchasing online.  A portion of every ticket sold will also go to support the centre and its work.

Reason’s Greetings

This Saturday night (December 19) we’re doing a bonus instalment of Magic Tonight as a fundraiser for the Centre for Inquiry Canada. This organization, near and dear to my heart, promotes reason, science and secular values and offers a terrific range of educational programming.

Dinner is included with tickets to the show and there are discounted tickets for Members of CFI. If you’re not a member but would like to join, you can buy a membership along with your tickets, available at www.magictonight.ca/cfi. The evening starts at 5:00 PM with some mingling (yes, the bar is open!), dinner at 6:00 and the show at 7:00.

For those who haven’t been, Magic Tonight is our weekly show in Downtown Toronto at the Crimson Lounge (College Street, just west of  Spadina). If you can’t make it on the 19th, but still want to support CFI, you can buy tickets for any of our regular shows with the discount code cficanada. You’ll get a huge discount and a portion of the proceeds will to go the centre.

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More logic

Recently, I wrote a lengthy post (a very, very lengthy post) against people who try to argue that materialism can’t count for logic. TL/DR logic isn’t some magical system handed down by stone tablets; its origins are far more mundane.

With those four thousand words still bubbling at the top of my consciousness, I came across three pieces from disparate sources that take the positive approach. Rather than picking apart the things that logic is not, they give examples of how logic in particular and epistemology in general work in the real world.

The first is a talk from Neil Turok, made just up the highway from Toronto at Perimeter Institute (a venue that while I have never been, I presume must essentially be nerd heaven.)

A second article by Richard Young, The 64 Gazillion Dollar Question: How Do You Know? from the August 2015 issue of Humanist Perspectives republished over at CanadianAtheist.com.

The third comes from a YouTube content creator dubbed The Messianic Manic. Here he’s dissecting claims by Frank Turek, a bad philosopher of epic proportions who argues largely on the basis of (inaccurate) catchy slogans.

They’re very different pieces but both interesting in their own regard. Interesting that I think I’ve organized them in ascending order of brevity.