Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Event report: 'Is agnosticism a logical stance?' - a sit down debate

Time: 17 May, 19:00 - 21:00
Place: G17 Pearson Building, University College London

The usual informal discussions in the pub during our society meetings (and the many amusing directions they can take, ref. Kieran's panda analogy of the Queen) define the essence and drive of this society, namely intellectual curiosity and exchange of ideas. For our second event, we decided to keep a slightly less informal debate out of the pub, centered around a single topic: agnosticism - more specifically, is agnosticism the only logically valid approach to viewing the world?

The impossibility of certainty was compared with the need to establish a pragmatic degree of certainty in order to lead a productive life - "Should scientists abandon their jobs by acknowledging everything they don't know?" The existence of god cannot be disproved, hence from a purely logical point of view, there is no right way to live your life other than agnosticism. However, it was pointed out that there is a difference between actively following agnosticism - considered non-progressive - and merely having it in the back of your head. As with all scientific reasoning, where in this case the non-existence of a god is the null hypothesis and the existence of a god is the alternative hypothesis, definite support for the null hypothesis cannot be established. Instead, a certain confidence level to reach conclusions is set, from which you choose a direction to act on and live your life by.

The extent to which something supports a particular hypothesis was further discussed. On one hand, it was argued the concept of proof can only be found in mathematics and logic. In remaining domains, presumption is a matter of how appropriate the justification for something is. This was questioned with the argument that overwhelmingly strong evidence for something, e.g. fossils, is the closest one can get to truth, hence should be considered proof. However, evidence such as fossils is only proof in a pragmatic sense, it was countered, and conclusions are always open to interpretation.

The difference between having a passive stance and an explicit stance with regards to religion was also considered. People who declare themselves to be "not religious" were observed to often dissociate themselves from the "atheist" label, i.e. not knowing is not the same as believing it is impossible to know, and not believing in god is not the same as believing there is no god. Also, it was mentioned that atheists in the U.S. seemed to be more likely to explicitly declare their view on religion compared to less religious societies.

In conclusion, there was a general agreement that agnosticim might be the only logical stance, but not necessarily the most pragmatic stance. Emphasis was put on the importance of clarifying, when discussing religion - particularly with religious people -, that the vast majority of atheists do not claim there is definite proof against the existence of god.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Event report: Prof. John Martin – ’Could a human soul have arisen from Darwinian evolution?’

Time: 3 May 2011, 19:00 - 20:30

Place: G08 Roberts Building, Malet Place, University College London

For our first event of the term, UCLU ASHS invited Professor John Martin, Chair of Cardiovascular Medicine at UCL and Professor Adjunct in Cardiology at Yale University, to hold a talk. With over 25 years of experience as a cardiovascular physician and academic researcher, some of his former roles include Vice President of the European Society of Cardiology and President of the European Society for Clinical Investigation. Additionally, he studied philosophy prior to qualifying from Sheffield University Medical School. He came to us to share his thoughts on human beings – and the human “soul”, in particular – as a qualitative, rather than quantitative, extension from evolution.

Prof. Martin first structured his talk around a number of questions establishing his philosophical view of understanding the universe:

1. Is man machine or not?

Prof. Martin rejected the conventional notion that neurobiology can account for all aspects of human beings as “a load of rubbish”: functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) research does not provide any explanations as to what humans are, but merely anatomical observations.

2. Is experimental science the only truth?

Again, he stressed that science is only a series of measurements and observations, which can generate predictions, but not explanations. Whilst he “believed in Darwinian evolution absolutely”, he also expressed a strong belief in Freudian psychoanalysis as a means to discover the truth about yourself - likening knowledge of the origin of the self with knowledge of the origin of the world.

3. What is the cause of the Big Bang?

Here, he made the suggestion that this cause could be the things it produced, including immutable constants such as pi, Avogadro’s number and the speed of light – indeed, that the nature of god could be these constants. A question was raised from the audience of whether he could simply label this “thing” manifesting itself as physical constants as “God”, to which Prof. Martin referred back to psychoanalysis: “you are your psychoanalytic nature more than your neural connections,” hence, although you cannot use scientific methods to explain the nature of the universe, you can reach an understanding of it through a subjective truth – “it feels true to me.” Not surprisingly, this generated a small debate on what “truth” is.

4. Is religion daft?

Having been brought up a Roman Catholic, he emphasised its important part of European history, and the practicality of prayer as a cheap form of psychoanalysis to better understand oneself. He also stressed that acknowledging the usefulness of religion does not necessarily entail believing in the bearded man in the sky. The audience responded to this by pointing out that it is the practice of verbalising thought to clarify ideas rather than the spiritual element that makes prayer useful: religion in itself is daft – however, we can extract useful parts from it.

5. Is art superior to science?

“Absolutely so.” Superior to the purely observational function of science, Prof. Martin argued, is the ability of art to interpret the internal mechanisms of humans: art, unlike science, cannot exist independently of a creator.

6. Does metaphysics exist?

Although it cannot be tested with the scientific method, he argued it does indeed exist, as “an existing thing cannot exist and not exist at the same time.”

From this, he went on to the main topic of the talk: chimpanzees and humans have nearly identical DNA – although “identical” was disputed among the audience -, yet humans are different in that we have free will and abstract thought. Prof. Martin suggested this difference could not have arisen from a quantitative mechanism, but from a qualitative one, i.e. humans have an "abstractor" independent of our constituent biological building blocks. To illustrate this point further, he paralleled this with a symphony existing independently of its constituent notes, or even the difference between a bent and straightened finger existing independently of the finger itself. What we consider the human soul, then, could be a manifestation of this abstractor of consciousness and free will, which at some point in evolution evolved by leaping off the quantitative progression above a certain threshold.

Prof. Martin made several postulations that generated questions from the audience, e.g. how can we know that chimpanzees do not have abstract thought, or even that human consciousness is not just an artifact of biological reflexes? Is it not more parsimonious to argue abstract thought evolved from an expansion of the cerebral cortex, rather than a qualitative threshold event? When determinism was brought up, for instance, he replied he accepts the possibility of determinism, yet acts on the assumption that we have free will, as it enhances his life and gives it happiness and pleasure. In sum, Prof. Martin argued his conjecture was a philosophical one, hence one must look beyond the trivialities of science.

Further discussion of Prof. Martin's ideas (objections to them, by and large) followed at Jeremy Bentham's, before it dissolved into various topics - including the recent Royal Wedding. We hope all who attended enjoyed the talk and the break from revision for those who had exams!

Click here for an article Prof. Martin wrote on the topic covered in the talk.