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Friday, October 23, 2009

"Discover Your Purpose in Life"

Tonight I went to a truly bizarre talk (actually, it was a series of four talks). The evening was advertised as a seminar presenting an irrefutable mathematical proof for the existence of God. Frustratingly, questions were held until the very end, so by the time the last fellow spoke one was so busy feeling blustery about what he said that one had forgotten many of the issues of the first talks. Also, unfortunately for the speakers the organizer of the event had, for some unfathomable reason, decided it would be a good idea to send a mass invitation to the math department. This then spilt over into some of the related departments (like physics), to the point where over three quarters of the audience were largely atheistic in mindset and highly versed in mathematics.

Roughly, the set of talks went like this:

Talk 1: "Discover Your Purpose in Life"
The fellow started by stating that there were two ways of reasoning, you either methodically looked at a sequence of data or you took all the information at once and made a comparison (at no point did he address how one knew whether one had all the relevant information or not). His talk was actually quite difficult to follow, for he seemed to jump from unqualified statement to unqualified statement. He made a number of tired and old arguments, including the "fine-tuning argument" and a number of other arguments from incredulity (mangling the concepts of probability and logic on his way). He then ended with one of the most bizarre theological renditions I have ever heard, including making the statement that the Earth was small in relation to the universe because the Earth was the kingdom God gave Satan to prove that Satan couldn't even run it properly... essentially, as far as I could follow, relegating the Earth to the status that I had understood hell to hold in the Abrahamic faiths. This was an inconsistent position, however, for he insinuated that God held sway over the happenings on Earth at multiple other points in his talk (as well as the other speakers), while also making the claim that no one held sway because everyone on Earth had the 'gift' of free will.

Talk 2: "The Proof"
A long, nonsensical power-point presentation of numerology finding coincidental recurrences of the number 19 in the Qur'an. Patterned coincidences in text have been well and thoroughly refuted numerous times (a good resource is here). Also, numerical coincidences in no way makes a mathematical proof.

Talk 3: "Why Bad Things Happen"
This talk was surprisingly the best of the bunch, although only because the fellow who gave it was an accomplished speaker who never really made much of a point (although at one point he did make the claim that your free will gave you control over whether you were on God's side, at which point your life would be good, or Satan's side, at which point your life would be bad. I wanted to ask about things like hurricanes and other natural disasters, which make life miserable for believer and non-believer alike and over which we have no control, but I never got that chance). He also made a couple statements which sounded very much like Yoda's philosophy (things along the line of "Don't give in to anger and hate"), so that kind of endeared him to me.

Talk 4: "Here's Craig"
For some reason, no title was given for this talk, and the speaker was only introduced as "Craig", hence the title given. This was a pretty wasted talk, as the speaker was clearly speaking to the wrong audience. He was attempting to reconcile the Bible with the Qur'an, meaning he basically quoted a lot of both of them without really saying much himself. At the end of his talk he made a very bizarre statement that completely contradicted the "free will is everything" sentiment espoused by two of the previous speakers by intimating that everything that happened was according to God's plan, including things like medical and scientific breakthroughs. He then left that hanging there as a confusing and highly arguable statement, and apparently disappeared (he failed to return to the podium for the question and answer period).

The Question and Answer Period: "Over an hour of brutal and highly charged argument"
I honestly felt a little bad for the speakers, because I don't think they were prepared for the response they got. Professor Charles Dyer got the first word in, and thoroughly blasted the numerology "proof" as such a twisted and overly round-about method of revelation that it was just as likely to be a trick of the devil as the work of any all-powerful god. As an opening salvo, while incendiary, it was not particularly devastating. There was a lot of blustering and, "Oh, but you haven't gone through the rest of the proof, this was only the rough beginning of it...", at which point Dyer and another member of the audience, a fellow named Ali in possession of a very robust knowledge of the Qur'an, tried to get across the profound contradiction imposed by the combination of omniscience and omnipotence as espoused by the speakers. This was largely lost on the speakers, at which point the organizer tried to salvage the evening by calling on another member of the audience.

This was a mistake. She called upon a mathematician in the audience named Alfonso who launched into a blistering tirade against their numerology, pointing out that very similar analyses had been done on numerous other books and were all based on the simple preponderance of coincidence available with very large data sets. I think it was a combination of his accent, rapid speech, hostility, and calling out of nonsense that would shake their worldview, but his question was not well received. The organizer herself got quite upset and snappy, and once again tried shuffling between questioners to ease the burden.

Alas, things continued to not go well as more of the audience clamped on to inconsistencies and fallacies. I got a brief moment to speak (I believe that the organizer was once again seeking reprieve), so I made the attempt of trying to engage the speakers on their level. My question was that even if one accepted what they were saying, why would God have let hundreds of generations of people live in complete and utter ignorance all over the world prior to revealing His word through the Qur'an, and even once that was revealed he continued to neglect the people of the Americas and Australia and other regions for more centuries. Even once he released the Qur'an, he did so with ultimate "proof" of his existence embedded in a manner that would require the invention of modern computers to adequately analyze, thereby preventing its discovery until 1974 (when this numerology was apparently completed). To my profound disappointment, the second speaker (who was standing at the podium at the time) said that he thought one of the other speakers should answer my question because he wasn't well versed in "that sort of thing", at which point no one else came up and the organizer simply called on another person. So much for my attempt to engage the speakers on their own level.

The final response was a calm and quiet audience member (I don't know his name) who simply pointed out the fact that numerical coincidences do not provide a proof. This was met with some uncomfortable squirming of the speakers as they professed to be "simply presenting information for others to make up their minds about". When they finally asked what a valid mathematical proof entailed, Alfonso started to give an answer when the organizer abruptly (and, I think, quite rudely) cut him off and wished everyone a good night, bringing the evening to a close.

Thus ended an odd and somewhat vexing (though still rather entertaining) evening.

7 comments:

Ivan K said...

The last guy whose name you didn't know is Matthew Ingle (brother of Ashleigh Ingle, whom you may have met).

But yeah. What a mess. Patrick and I may take them up on their offer to have lunch and talk about this further.

wisefly said...

Ha, I heard about this... was skeptical (duh!), and am now glad I didn't go. Based on your description, I do feel a little sorry for the speakers. Why would anyone untrained in math claim to have "irrefutable mathematical proof", and send an invitation to the math department?

S.C. Kavassalis said...

It was truly a hilarious disaster. They really picked their audience quite poorly.

Paul Kishimoto said...

Ivan K's idea of a lunchtime talk would have had a much better chance of working before, instead of after, a public humiliation. It sounds as if most of the audience had a greater grasp of logic than of empathy. I would have been acutely uncomfortable as a spectator. To further have a professor of the (supposed) university leading the charge is even more unfortunate.

http://harpers.org/archive/2009/10/hbc-90005097 came up in my news feed today; another coincidence.

Mozglubov said...

Paul, we have had this argument before (back in 2007, I believe, since it was when I was in Cambridge and before I'd started this blog). I think at that point we had left it at "agree to disagree"...

G said...

Most amusing blog in some time.

Robert said...

I was squirming in my seat for those presenters here just reading this post! As much as I love it when nonsense is called out for what it is, I still have an extreme emotional gut reaction to feel bad and get uncomfortable for the presenter of the nonsense idea.