Meeting report: Imagine No Religion

May 17, 2014 • 7:28 am

I’ll be busy at the Imagine No Religion 4 meeting today (this conference is srs bsns, though there’s lot of opportunity for socializing). The attendees at this meeting are older than those at the usual atheist meeting: the demographic reminds me of the Freedom from Religion Foundation annual meeting. Although one would like to see more young people, this also means that the attendees expect meat instead of drama: serious and thought-provoking talks. I like that, for I favor meetings that are mostly devoted to interacting and learning rather than drinking, socializing, and dissing other atheists. We’ll try to give the audience some meat (or for you vegetarians, tofurkey).

This is the view from my room:


We had a lovely dinner for the speakers last night, with good company and terrific noms. First the noms—a buffet:

One of the three dessert tables (remember, there are only about 15 speakers!):


Seafood: shrimp, mussels, salmon, and so on:



Moar desserts!




Remedy for ribs!


Salads and stuff:


The roast-beef carving station (make mine rare):


Last night’s panel was on free will, in which moderator  Chris diCarlo, Ish Haji (a philosopher from Calgary), Lawrence Krauss (the “mystery guest”), and myself hashed out the issue for an hour (Chris and I are “hard determinists,” Ish a compatibilist, and Lawrence, well, it[‘s hard to tell. We had no libertarian free willers, as Chris, who organized the panel, couldn’t find one, despite a year of asking.

Our discussion was vigorous, by which I mean sometimes contentious. Ish made a number of statements about science that Krauss found offensive (e.g. “science has nothing to say about the concept of causation; it’s a philosophical concept”), and Krauss, believe me, showed his disdain.  At one point Ish claimed that common sense deludes us, pointing to the table and said we were under the misconception that the table was solid. At that point Krauss climbed on our table and began pounding it, demonstrating that it was solid.

The avid audience interest and participation in the Q&A were surprising to me, as discussions of free will can be tedious or arcane. I did get into it a bit with Krauss, who maintained that yes, all our actions are completely determined, and wouldn’t even grant the possibility of quantum indeterminacy affecting the course of our actions or of cosmological history, since he said that “quantum mechanics is a deterministic theory.”

That’s true, but quantum events may change the way life unfolds if you were to “replay the tape of life.” Or so I think. But that has nothing to do with whether we make “free” decisions.

Krauss also claimed, despite his pure determinism, that we still have a form of free will, simply because we act like we do, so it makes no difference at all whether we “could have chosen otherwise.” I took issue with that on two counts. First, if if determinism reigns and dualism doesn’t, then that viewpoint has enormous implications for how we treat people—and punish them. Second, I noted that the Libet experiment, Soon et al. experiment, and others like them show that there is a difference between thinking we have free will and knowing that things are determined: experiments from brain scans are beginning to show that some decisions can be predicted before people are conscious of having made them. Krauss’s response, I think, was lame: he said those experiments predict behaviors with imperfect accuracy (I think it’s 60-80%). But that imperfection is irrelevant, for it shows that there is a difference between our thinking we can do otherwise and studies showing that we aren’t as free to do otherwise as we think. It was an engaging discussion, and Krauss took several opportunities to tell Ish that he completely misunderstood science (Krauss pulls no punches), which of course offended the philosopher.

Some of the speakers from last night’s dinner are in the photos below:

Jerry DeWitt, apostate preacher (“Can I get a Darwin?”) and Wanda Morris (CEO of Dying with Dignity Canada):


Carolyn Porco (astronomer) and Margaret Downey (secular activist):


L to R: Ish, Bill Ligertwood the organizer, Genie Scott, Chris Dicarlo, and his wife (whose name I’ve forgotten; apologies):


Seth Andrews (ex-Christian and podcaster: “The Thinking Atheist”) and Darrell Ray (author and outspoken secularist):


I’ll have a lot more photos later, I hope.

You can see today’s schedule here, and it ends with a screening of “The Unbelievers” with the filmmakers Gus and Luke Howarda as well as Lawrence Krauss (one of the stars along with Richard Dawkins, who, sadly, isn’t here).



31 thoughts on “Meeting report: Imagine No Religion

  1. Carolyn Porco is awesome. I’m glad the people there are also more interested in the “meat” of things.

    I would have eaten only the desserts at that buffet!

    And Jerry – Seth’s podcast is “The Thinking Atheist” not “Amazing Atheist” though Amazing would probably be good too. 🙂

    1. Isn’t “thinking atheist” redundant, in the same way that “thinking theist” is an oxymoron?

  2. Yeah, dissing other atheists is an important part of belonging to a group which values free and open discussion. It’s quite different from Christian folk who only try to out-christian each other.

    On a related note, where are the beer photos?

  3. Looks like a fine conference. Wish I was there.

    On a different subject, is that Mount Doom burning in the distance in the first photo? 😉

  4. “I like that, for I favor meetings that are mostly devoted to interacting and learning rather than drinking, socializing,”

    I notice you did NOT write “rather than nomming…” and that the nom pics came right after the view from the window;))

    Sounds like a great time is being had by all in beautiful western Canuckland.

    (in response to your yesterday’s post about the officious Canadian border person, as an American who has lived in Canada for 37 years and has undergone many border crossings I can attest that assholiness seems to be equally distributed between border-guard persons of both nationalities, and reasonableness as well.
    It is likely that border-guarding does attract a certain kind of officious personality, but I have mainly had good luck travelling both ways.)

  5. If I remember right, Lawrence is a proponent of the Many-Worlds theory. As such, his point about quantum mechanics being entirely deterministic makes sense according to that interpretation. Understanding it requires a flip of perspective…when we experience something that’s quantumly indeterminate, the Universe “clones” itself, one for each possible outcome. Each outcome is therefore realized in a perfectly determinate manner, and the only uncertainty comes from our inside-the-Universe perspective where we only experience one of those outcomes. And, at that point, any questions of meaning as to which outcome we actually perceive are meaningless, since another set of “us” with an identical history up to that point perceives the other outcome.

    I’m still not convinced by Many-Worlds, but I don’t think I’ve mischaracterized that explanation.

    Jerry, I think this perspective of quantum mechanics further strengthens your points about the significance of determinism on justice. Even the spooky quantum randomness excuse is irrelevant, because all possible quantum outcomes are realized according to M-W. And if something is unjust as a result of one quantum state, it must be equally unjust as a result of another quantum state.



    1. I think you’ve mischaracterized it in two respects.

      First, “when we experience something…the Universe ‘clones’ itself” seems to imply that the “cloning” is somehow driven by our conscious experience. It isn’t. Decoherence — the divergence of quantum wavefunctions into non-interfering components — is a normal outcome of thermodynamic particle interactions, and happens whether or not there are any conscious observers. Our experience comes into play only in the sense that our brains are large systems of particles subject to the same rules of quantum superposition and decoherence as everything else.

      Second, “cloning” is (in my opinion) a mischaracterization of decoherence since it conjures up an image of galaxies, planets, and people being duplicated wholesale, in flagrant violation of conservation laws. But again, that’s not what’s going on. We know that particles can be in more than one state at the same time: a single photon can pass through two slits simultaneously. So it follows that systems of particles, however large, can be in more than one state and have more than one history. The universe itself, then, is just a single, very large system of particles in a superposition of states comprising all physically possible histories. No “cloning” is required.

      1. So, Many Court Theory is the next jurisdictional ethics out of philosophy? I note the ruling will then be decided before the court convenes, so maybe not. =D

        Re decoherence and its universal “sink” of superpositions that we loose control over (information about), if we put holography aside for the moment, quantum information theory of quantum computing has derived an approach to derive the arrow of time out of decoherence in a manner compatible with MWT view.

        The upside is that it is compatible with (MWT and) the wavefunction of the universe, and its lack of explicit time. The downside is that it is incompatible with holography, which derives an increasing entropy of the universe akin to classical thermodynamics, while here the total entropy is zero. A Simon’s Foundation article here.

      2. Those are fair clarifications. Of course, I in no way meant any sort of teleology in the process, and of course physicists wouldn’t propose something that ignored conservation.

        At the same time, I think the concept of cloning is reasonable from the perspective of somebody inside the Universe. (And, yes, where else would somebody be?) If all possible outcomes are realized but you only ever perceive one of them, it’s hard to describe that as anything other than duplication. No, it’s not a case of an entirely new universe being constructed from scratch and sent on its own way, but it very reasonably gives an extremely powerful illusion of such being the case. We don’t actually have the omniscient perspective necessary to see all superpositions, save through theoretical physics models.

        (And, again, I’m still not personally convinced by M-W….)


  6. You seem enamored of the term “Libertarian Free Willers”. Libertarianism is a political philosophy (whatever its downside) not a biological/psychological term. You would find among libertarians a very wide range of belief regarding free will.

    1. “Libertarian free will” is a technical term in philosophy that refers to the sort magical, dualistic power of choice that’s independent of physical causality. “Libertarian” in this sense has nothing to do with the political ideology of the same name.

  7. Second, I noted that the Libet experiment, Soon et al. experiment, and others like them show that there is a difference between thinking we have free will and knowing that things are determined

    I don’t particularly follow the free will theme. I understand the philosophical importance to, for example, judicial policy. But since the overwhelming majority of voters are quite strongly into vicious retribution and often don’t even particularly care about catching the right person … it’s a philosophical issue. (And this from a continental political group which has foresworn the use of lethal force against prisoners! How much worse it must be in a country which still practices judicial murder!)
    However, those experiments do rather call for links to (good, accurate) descriptions and analyses. Which I suspect might be asking a bit much of Wikipedia. But having said that, are you referring to this (Libet) and … it seems that WEIT is the top of the Google Pops for the Soon et al experiment.
    OK ; I’ve got enough from skimming those to know approximately where those experiments fit into the greater scheme of knowledge. I’ll go back to sleep on the free will question now. Hopefully the links will be of use to anyone else dipping their predeterministic toes into this particular piranha pool.

  8. I really admire Lawrence Krauss for his clarity facing occasional obscurities brought by philosophers. Ish’s comment about the “solid table” is pathetic. I feel philosophy is still useful and necessary in gaining knowledge about the world, but it seems science has more tools to do so. Modifying one word from the great Paul Dirac, we can say: “In science you want to say something that nobody knew before, in words which everyone can understand. In philosophy you are bound to say… something that everybody knows already in words that nobody can understand.”:).

  9. Carolyn Porco is a big gun, good to see her there. I know her “Enceladus is our best next astrobiology target” strategy gets a lot of, IMO overwhelming, competition from Europa recently. (Perhaps many times more massive plumes; perhaps plate tectonics ice analog which Enceladus so far lack.) But the Cassini team has made a huge advance!

    Krauss, who maintained that yes, all our actions are completely determined, and wouldn’t even grant the possibility of quantum indeterminacy affecting the course of our actions or of cosmological history, since he said that “quantum mechanics is a deterministic theory.”

    What an interesting, arguable point, especially coming from Krauss.

    Yes, quantum states propagate deterministically, even causally as opposed to some of its correlations (non-locality). Feynman integrals integrates all quantum paths to construct pathways between states, so possibly quantum events (fluctuations) are sometimes not harmful to that. And then we have, as Ben notes, the fully deterministic Many World Theory of quantum physics.

    Else I note that Krauss’s own slow roll inflation shows how individual quantum fluctuations become cosmological history. They are responsible for the universe coming out of inflation (so not everything inflating ending it at the same time) and of its individual structures (density variations later ending up as seeds for the matter filaments vs the voids).

    And I’m still thumping on deterministic chaos, whether classical or quantum, since it should mean that our actions are not completely determined at all times. It is fundamentally hopeless to predict them when such chaos appears. Re Krauss’s determining that a table is solid despite it has so much voids, then determinism is what we observe and not what philosophy claims is “deterministic”.

  10. The problem with atheists is that they illogically go from “god does not exist” to “therefore we should not believe in god.”

    Just because something is not true does not mean that we should not believe in it.

    A might be false, but believe in A might produce the optimal society. No proof has been put forth that 100% atheism leads to the optimal society, but 3000 years of recorded history does show that belief in religion is integral for the emergence, and maintenance of, civilization.

    1. Maybe you could explain how “3000 years of recorded history does show that belief in religion is integral for the emergence, and maintenance of, civilization.”
      Do you contend that we could not have maintained a civilized society without the Inquisition, witch burnings, the Dark Ages with the suppression of scientific exploration, or the Aztecs ripping the still beating hearts out of those unlucky sacrificial victims.
      Or maybe you don’t think the mostly godless societies in northern Europe can give us an example of peaceful, happy and prosperous living devoid of religion.
      Explain yourself please.

    2. Josh, you have set up a Straw Man. “God does not exist” is not a premise, but a provisional conclusion based the absence of evidence and sound arguments for God’s existence. Your second sentence is pure illogic – I have no idea why you would state that. That would justify the belief in any crazy notion in the absence of evidence (fairies, leprechauns, etc).

  11. I wonder if Bill Ligertwood is a relative of mine? That was my grandma’s maiden name (technical term), and she was in contact with relatives in western Canada some decades ago (I thought Alberta). I’d assumed they’d all be dour Presbyterians too, but their quantum states would be expected to correlate with various non-Presbyterian bits of the universe over time.

  12. Dude, I am so happy I subscribed to your blog! This was a great read, and it’s always nice to find out about the different conventions/conferences out there. This post gave me a lot of optimism in terms of the future of atheism, and it also showed how atheists are very diverse. Thanks for posting! And thanks for being so involved!

    Danny p.s. I want to once again say how ashamed I am at my alma mater, Brandeis University — and I want to make clear that, unless and until it apologies to AHA and makes up for its actions, I will NEVER support it again.

  13. Hope you enjoy your stay in Kamloops, Jerry! I’m from just outside Kamloops, but drive there every day for work. I know exactly which hotel you’re staying in based on the picture you took from the window. They used to have good food but I haven’t eaten there in many years. Wish I could have gone to the conference but I am out of town for the May long weekend (It’s Victoria Day weekend here in Canada).

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