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:
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).