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The Amazing Meeting 2011: Richard Dawkins vs. Chuck Norris

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On Saturday, I was trapped for an hour in a room with British evolutionary biologist and author Richard Dawkins and 1,600 skeptics. By Chuck Norris. Yes, the Chuck Norris. I am not making this up.

The scene: we’ve seen signs around for martial arts training, or perhaps Fight Club, taking place in our hotel the same days as The Amazing Meeting. Turns out that it’s the annual tournament of the United Fighting Arts Federation, and on Saturday, several hundred contestants were dressed to the nines and standing in a Disney-style line that filled the entire hallway outside of Richard Dawkins’s keynote address. What they were waiting for: to shake the hand of Chuck Norris, one by one, as they entered their banquet across the hall.

When you’re releasing 1,600 people into the same hall, all heading to the single escalator to dinner, what you do not want is several hundred more martial artists waiting in line, and causing a potentially dangerous traffic problem. So you solve the problem by giving Richard Dawkins a very long Q&A session, and hopefully glue everyone to their seats.

Chuck Norris Fact: Chuck Norris can shake hands so quickly that his fingers create tiny sonic booms. But it still takes him over an hour to work through a reception line.

Dawkins’s speech was taken from his next book, due to be published later this year, called “The Magic of Reality.” It’s a “graphic science book,” written for children and young adults, and poses a large number of “big questions,” which it answers first with a summary of the world’s myths and religious beliefs about the question, followed by the scientific answer. Sample questions:

  • Who was the first person?
  • Why are there so many different kinds of animals?
  • What are things made of?
  • What is the sun?
  • When and how did everything begin?

With this format, Dawkins proposes that the scientific stories behind these questions are more awe-inspiring and esthetically beautiful than their historical non-scientific counterparts. This has been similarly stated before by Carl Sagan in his book, “The Demon-Haunted World,” but Dawkins is the first, to my knowledge, to attempt to demonstrate the argument in book form with numerous examples.

Dawkins took a single such question for his talk: “Are we alone in the universe?” It’s a unique question in his book, as there are no prescientific beliefs about extraterrestrial life, although medieval legends of demons and succubi show remarkable similarity to “aliens among us” stories told today. In Dawkins’s view, it is vanishingly unlikely that extraterrestrials have been here physically, but searching for communications through projects like SETI is a good idea.

The primary argument in favor of E.T.’s existence: there are 1022 stars in the universe (for those who haven’t done scientific notation in a while, that’s a 1 followed by 22 zeros, or 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 — in other words, a truly vast number of stars). If life arises once per star, that’s 1022 examples of biogeny. But even if it occurs only once per galaxy, then life on Earth is one of 1014 such examples. If, on the other hand, you choose to believe that life on Earth is alone in the universe, then you must also believe that life is so “stupefyingly rare” that our being here is far more unlikely than most events that we would colloquially refer to as “impossible.” (For a more nuanced argument, check out the Wikipedia entry on the Drake equation.)

If we’re going to interact meaningfully with these life forms, then they must have some kind of intelligence. This, too, could be unique to Earth life, but that would then raise the same paradoxical issues as the previous question.

From the diversity of life found on Earth, we can make educated guesses about what alternate forms of intelligent life might be, by asking which universal statements about Earth life are applicable to life elsewhere:

  • Does life have to be Darwinian? Dawkins sees no alternative to evolution as a way of developing intelligent life. Complexity such as ours cannot spontaneously arise out of nothing; it has to develop in a non-random and competitive fashion over a vast period of time. Alternative explanations involving supernatural direction, such as intelligent design, explain nothing scientifically, so in Dawkins’s words, they are not a serious candidate. Anything is theoretically possible with the will of a divine power, so therefore nothing can be predicted from such a hypothesis.

  • Does life have to have a genetic code? Evolution in turn requires a high-fidelity replicator similar to our DNA, but not a perfect replicator or it will exclude the possibility of mutation, which would seem necessary for adapting to changing environments. This replicator is most likely digital, like ours is (through the nucleotide bases adenine, cytosine, guanine, and thymine that are the building blocks of DNA), because while analog methods are possible, they are unlikely to replicate with as much fidelity as a digital code.

  • Does life have to be based on carbon? Carbon has several unique properties, as do the proteins made of carbon that form the basis for Earth life. Life here stems from the double act of interactions between proteins and DNA; this was necessary for our complexity, but the existence of alternative means of life such as RNA retroviruses leaves the door open for other kinds of evolution.

  • Do they need to have sex? Obviously not; that’s not universal here, either.

  • Do they need to be multicellular? Perhaps not; it may be possible for intelligence to arise in large unicellular life forms.

Another way of approaching the question is with a thought experiment: If we were to re-run the evolution of life on Earth, how similar would the outcome be to what actually did occur? In other words, how predictable is life on Earth given our starting conditions? The more predictable we are, the more you can say about life elsewhere; however, if each grand experiment on Earth has a completely different outcome, we must also assume that we cannot say much about our neighbors.

One way to approach this question is through “experiments” run for us, by evolution on land masses separated by continental drift. Marsupials and mammals are completely separate branches of evolution, but there are dog-like marsupials that require dissection to prove they are not dogs; if you’re going to be a running predator, a dog’s structure is a rather efficient way of going about things. Marsupials and mammals have each produced nearly identical flying squirrels; likewise, there are three different branches of evolution that created a sabertooth tiger.

Life seems to be “eager” for some kinds of adaptations, as some structures arise repeatedly. Eyes developed independently more than forty times, often enough to draw a conclusion that where there’s light, life will learn to see it. Echolocation, a useful adaptation for dark places, has arisen only four times. Winged flight developed four times; jet flight twice (both in mollusks). A biological wheel has only occurred once, in bacteria, perhaps due to the difficulty of running nerves or control mechanisms through an axle structure.

Finally: are there “gods” out there? Dawkins believes that it is likely that there are hyper-advanced species and cultures whom would certainly appear to be godlike compared to us, much as we might appear to our ancestors. However, these must also be evolved creatures. Our solar system has only been around for 4.7 billion years, in a universe that is 9 billion years older, so there are many ways other civilizations could have a substantial evolutionary and cultural development head start over us. But just as intelligent complexity must evolve from simpler structures, this is also true of whomever else is out there, no matter where their evolution has presently led.


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Comments about The Amazing Meeting 2011: Richard Dawkins vs. Chuck Norris

Obi-Wandreas  2011-07-18 08:06
The problem with attempting to prove the infinite is that it is impossible. If God himself were to introduce himself to you, and demonstrate the full extent of his power, you could never be 100% certain that you weren't either hallucinating or speaking to an advanced trickster. Likewise, were you to prove that the entire universe could have developed on it's own, that in no way proves that it was not God who set it up that way. Speculation is fun, but to think that a finite being can prove the existence or nonexistence of the infinite is an act of supreme arrogance.
Warner SaundersSr  2011-07-18 10:32
Once the word God is injected into the debate (conversation) All of us are tossed into deep uncharted waters. We are all dying to know the truth..If even then.
deejaykaye  2011-07-18 10:33
Assigning a gender to the "infinite" is also an "act of supreme arrogance".
Jeff Porten  An apple icon for a Friend of TidBITS 2011-07-18 12:20
My editorial umbrella for TAM was to cover the science, and to steer clear of the atheism debate -- it's not a TidBITS topic, and as humanity has been debating this for thousands of years, we're not going to resolve it in a comments thread. That said, two addenda from TAM on this issue:

JREF is *not* an atheist organization, it just has many atheists in its membership. The *skeptical* approach is that if God were to manifest Itself in a miraculous and testable way, then skeptics would believe in God. An unscheduled eclipse would do the job nicely.

And to repeat Dawkin's argument (not repeated at TAM): you could make the same argument for God as for a teapot being somewhere in Earth's orbit -- neither is disprovable with current technology. So lack of provability is not a reason to believe, nor should you believe in an orbiting teapot.
The infinite is not impossible to prove. Note I said prove not support. Logically and mathematically, between any two numbers there is an infinite series of other numbers.
As far as gods are concerned, we are talking about convincing humans that god(s) exist. The evidence is that humans have been rather susceptible to this idea over not just the recent past, with what seems to us now as rather flimsy "evidence".
"God" has emerged from our psychology as a place holder for that which we cannot otherwise explain or understand. It seems that humans CAN be convinced of the existence of gods, and that is exactly the point that Dawkins is making. He is asking us to confront our own gullibility. As Sagan said, science is a candle in the dark, a means for examining the true underlying nature of what we experience. No scientist will tell you that we have reached the end of this process of discovery, but we have not yet found a better way of discerning between assertion & truth. peteraknz@gmail
Dane Deasy  2011-07-18 09:52
What does this have to do with Apple?
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2011-07-18 12:07
Not much - see the first article in the conference coverage for a brief explanation. :-)

We're fully aware that coverage of The Amazing Meeting is on the edge of what we generally do - not so much because it's not about Apple (we cover lots of things that aren't about Apple) but because it's only peripherally about aspects of technology that interest us.

When Jeff Porten pitched me on covering this conference, we talked it through and decided that it was worth trying, in part because of some of the overlaps between JREF and the tech world (the JREF experimenting with iOS as a way to promote critical thinking, one of the interview subjects being a FileMaker developer, and so on).

But the real reason I gave Jeff the green light was that the core mission of the JREF - promoting critical thinking and access to the tools of science - is something I think is important in the tech world, and something we could use more of these days.
Jeff Porten  An apple icon for a Friend of TidBITS 2011-07-18 12:24
Quick addendum to Adam: I've been reading TidBITS for 20 years (maybe 21, I can't remember), so when I attend one of these conferences, I use my understanding of the kinds of discussion generated by TidBITS readership to choose what to cover.

There is *plenty* at TAM that was cut out because it's not TidBITS-related. But I came here reasonably certain that I could focus on topics that were of interest. It's pretty much the same judgment I use at any conference I'm covering here.
I am greatly enjoying these articles. Thanks for allowing this, and thanks to Jeff for pitching it and following up with excellent coverage.
Philip Gentry  2011-07-18 16:35
If I may respectfully add a dissenting voice, I'm a long-time TidBITS reader, and reports from the Ditchkens crowd aren't something I'm interested in. That's not critical thinking, that's just an exercise in self-superiority that's every bit as predetermined as that of their comrades on the fundamentalist right. Articles pushing the edge of technology and culture are always great, but with plenty of great stuff out there why this?
Dan Butcher  2011-07-19 04:20
I agree with Philip--this isn't what I want to read (or take up space in my RSS reader) from TidBITS. I come here for Mac news; that's it.
I can see why people would not be interested in the topic of alien life, but if it were merely lack of interest, wouldn't it be easiest to just ignore the post? Or, alternatively, if you're not interested in skeptical content in general, ignore the three TAM essays? There doesn't seem to be any danger of TidBITS being overrun by skeptical content.

As a side-note, the article deals with the biology of alien life, which seems to fit your category of "articles pushing the edge of technology and culture". Are you not interested in this particular article merely because it's about something Dawkins said? Which part of what he reportedly said is "self-superior"?
I just wanted to add to the people saying they enjoyed the articles about TAM. Thanks for posting them.
juryjone  2011-07-18 10:05
This is a very well-done summary of Dawkins' talk. Kudos!
Walter Ian Kaye  2011-07-18 12:35
I still haven't seen proof that Richard Dawkins is real. Oh sure, people claim to have seen him and heard him, but *I* haven't seen him, therefore he surely does not exist.
Jeff Porten  An apple icon for a Friend of TidBITS 2011-07-18 12:38
I briefly chatted with him in the speaker's lounge, so not only can I attest to his existence, I can also say that his glasses can be broken with too-vigorous polishing.
Jeff Porten  An apple icon for a Friend of TidBITS 2011-07-18 12:42
I can see that this article is going to generate a vigorous comments thread, so a quick note on the whole God question in the hopes of laying the groundwork for discussion.

It is absolutely true that science cannot say anything about the existence of God -- as Dawkins said in his talk, hypotheses of this type are nonpredictive and nonfalsifiable, which makes them nonscientific. It is therefore a *factual* statement that debates about religion are nonscientific, and that a *factual* debate can be had over separating religious belief from scientific argument.

Dawkins takes this a step further to say that the absence of scientific evidence means that religious believers are deluded, to use his word. JREF does *not* agree with this -- it does not have a position on religion. But it has strong stances on separating scientific debate from religious belief.

Alright. Carry on.
Whether we approach questions from a scientific perspective or from religious belief we run significant risk of bias, and worse, blindness, because of ‘confirmation bias’.
Science helps us understand the ingredients, but can’t explain the reasons for the natural world. Bertrand Russell acknowledged this problem in his illustration of ‘Aunt Matilda’s Cake’.
I think that this is where people like Richard Dawkins lets us down. He doesn’t adequately explore the implications of the fact that the human genome is encoded with over 3 billion instructions necessary for succeeding generations. He can’t bring himself to consider the possibility of intelligent design.
It is good that JREF seeks to help people defend themselves us from paranormal and pseudoscientific claims, but there is a risk that these efforts are to a degree directed at ‘straw men’ to avoid dealing with the historical evidence for the life death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It may challenge our self-centric world view.
Joseph  2011-07-19 07:16
I must say that I'd rather not see TidBITS attacking the existence of God rather than covering Apple-related tech news.

But more irking than that is the refusal to admit what this article actually does. You keep claiming that you're just "promoting critical thinking", but that's hogwash. You're promoting Richard Dawkins and insinuating that those of us who believe that God exists and that he created the universe are somehow inferior in our ability to "think critically".

Anyone with a modicum of "critical thinking" ability can see this in a heartbeat.
Curtis Wilcox  An apple icon for a Friend of TidBITS 2011-07-19 13:49
This article does not address the existence or non-existence of God at all, let along "attacking" the question. While Dawkins has arguably done some attacking on many an occasion and might even have done so at the event in question. None of that is present in this article. The talk, and this article, *is* critical of a literal interpretation of the Bible with regards to the origin of the universe, Intelligent Design as an explanation for life, and all other non-scientific explanations for life and the universe. If that's really what's irking you, well, you're irked.

Anyone with a modicum of critical thinking can separate the "baby" of Dawkins's expertise in evolutionary biology from the "bathwater" of his personality and critical stance against religion.
The good thing is that God is on the map.
• People who sense that Mr Dawkins doesn't have all the answers may be prompted to do some honest research for themselves.
• Those of us who have seriously done so, have found that the Bible is not a scientific journal. Rather, it's God's way of speaking the promises that he has already made and kept for those who are prepared to rely on him.
• The best part is yet to come, and so far he is still giving us time to wakeup to the obvious.
• There is everything to gain to having an open mind to this, and nothing to lose! Except for one thing.
• And that is: that we are born - despite all of our attempts to hide it - self centred! Whereas the purpose for God creating us is that we be God centred.
• One reason that Christianity has such a bad name, and is justifiably criticised by many, is that through history so many people have rejected God's law of love, justice and mercy. They have acted as if they were God, in their own interest, without love.
Jeff Porten  An apple icon for a Friend of TidBITS 2011-07-20 18:56
You know, I'm finding the comments thread here to be fascinating, in that most of what's been written here has almost nothing to do with either my article, or with the contents of Dawkins' speech.

Curtis Wilcox already said what I was going to say (in a much more succinct manner), so I'll just thank him for that before mentioning: I guarantee my readers that they have ABSOLUTELY NO IDEA what my religious beliefs are, and are exceedingly unlikely to guess.

Finally -- as to Joseph's point about skeptics feeling superior to believers -- no question, there's some of that going on. Much as believers feel superior to skeptics in many ways -- having been raised as one of the "Chosen People," it's completely obvious to me that that's a superior self-assigned position, regardless of how Jews practice their religion. This was addressed in another talk which I omitted, in which Carol Tavris exhorted the crowd to *avoid* language that excluded or belittled others.
Curtis Wilcox  An apple icon for a Friend of TidBITS 2011-07-22 09:15
"I guarantee my readers that they have ABSOLUTELY NO IDEA what my religious beliefs are"

Does it involve noodly appendages? ;)
Jeff Porten  An apple icon for a Friend of TidBITS 2011-07-22 09:55
Comment 10,000, Curtis, if the URL is to be believed.

No, no noodly appendages. Although I'm a fan of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, can't call me a convert.
Curtis Wilcox  An apple icon for a Friend of TidBITS 2011-07-22 15:24
Comment 10,000? It's a sign, I tell you!
Andrew James  2011-07-24 17:09
And here I was thinking there would be more about Chuck Norris - you teaser Jeff!