Archive for February, 2013

For more superb public speaking advice, see Teddy Wayne’s article for the New York Times.

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I’ve blogged before about my admiration for the remarkable talents of Derren Brown. However, I’ve just finished watching his latest TV offering, Fear and Faith, (Episode 2, first broadcast on Friday 16 November 2012) and I find it deeply flawed.

The show is pitched as an experiment. In particular, I’m going to discuss the segment in which “an atheist [Natalie] is given a religious conversion” via what Brown calls psychological techniques. The results of the experiment are very striking – I encourage you to watch the video, if you can.

Let’s begin by reminding ourselves of what an experiment is. Very simply, an experiment is a controlled attempt to link a particular cause to a particular effect. If you want to know whether morphine can relieve pain in humans, you might think that you just give people in pain morphine and then ask if the pain went away. However, this experiment cannot tell whether it was really the morphine that did it. Thus, we must use a control.

The idea of a control is to use two experiments that differ only in the presence or absence of what we’ll call the active ingredient. We must be able to control both the active ingredient and the other variables.  It is crucial that in every other way, the experiments are as identical as possible. In medicine, one crucial variable is the mental state of the patient, which is why the trial must be double blind – to factor out the placebo effect, patients and even their doctors cannot know whether the pill is real or fake.

Thus we come to Derren Brown’s experiment. I have four criticisms.

1. There is no control.

An effect is caused, but in the absence of a control, it isn’t clear to what it should be ascribed. This points to an even deeper problem.

2. The active ingredient is not supposed to be belief in God.

That one can produce a religious experience in the absence of belief in God is not an interesting conclusion. Plenty of religious people claim that a religious experience caused (and thus preceded) their belief in God. In fact, it would be much more embarrassing to the religious cause if religious experiences only happened in cases where the subject already believed in God, since that would make it seem as if the prior belief created the experience. Brown excludes this hypothesis.

3. The active ingredient is supposed to be God.

Tonight I’m going to investigate what I think could be the biggest placebo of them all – God. … This innate hardwiring we have really can give a powerful experience of God, without any need for Him to exist.

God himself (if you’ll allow the traditional masculine pronoun) is the active ingredient. Brown is claiming that he can create a religious experience in the absence of any action of God.

Let’s repeat the experimental logic, as we applied it to morphine (cause) and pain relief (effect) above. To adequately test the causal connection between religious experiences and God, Brown would need to control God. At the very least, he would need to perform an experiment in the absence of God. He would need to build a divine Faraday cage, to shield the possible effects of God.

Obviously, this is not what Brown has achieved. The experiment only proves that God is not required for a religious experience if there is no God, for only then is the active ingredient known to be missing from the experiment. Brown cannot exclude God as the cause of the experience without begging the question. The most he can claim is that he can do it “without mentioning God at all”. And that, clearly, is not the same thing. (more…)


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I’m going to jump back on one of my favourite high horses. I’ve previously blogged about Lawrence Krauss and his views on the question “why is there something rather than nothing?”. I’ve just finished his book, and he appeared last night on an Australian TV show called Q&A. It was a good panel discussion, but as usual the show invites too many people and tries to discuss too much so there is always too little time. Krauss’ discussions with John Dickson were quite interesting.

I’ll be discussing the book in more detail in future, but listening to Krauss crystallised in my mind why I believe that science in principle cannot explain why anything exists.

Let me clear about one thing before I start. I say all of this as a professional scientist, as a cosmologist. I am in the same field as Krauss. This is not an antiscience rant. I am commenting on my own field.

Firstly, the question “why is there something rather than nothing?” is equivalent to the question “why does anything at all exist?”. However, Krauss et al have decided to creatively redefine nothing (with no mandate from science – more on that in a later post) so that the question becomes more like “why is there a universe rather than a quantum space time foam?”. So I’ll focus on the second formulation, since it is immune to such equivocations.

Here is my argument.
A: The state of physics at any time can be (roughly) summarised by three things.

1. A statement about what the fundamental constituents of physical reality are and what their properties are.
2. A set of mathematical equations describing how these entities change, move, interact and rearrange.
3. A compilation of experimental and observational data.

In short, the stuff, the laws and the data.

B: None of these, and no combination of these, can answer the question “why does anything at all exist?”.

C: Thus physics cannot answer the question “why does anything at all exist?”.

Let’s have a closer look at the premises. I’m echoing here the argument of David Albert in his review of Krauss’ book, which I thoroughly recommend. Albert says,

[W]hat the fundamental laws of nature are about, and all the fundamental laws of nature are about, and all there is for the fundamental laws of nature to be about, insofar as physics has ever been able to imagine, is how that elementary stuff is arranged. (more…)

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