Thursday, March 21, 2013

Guest Post: Dawkins at the Philomathean Society Annual Oration

John Murray is a moderator for the Pittsburgh Atheists group on Facebook, and active in a number of regional and national freethought, skeptic, and atheist organizations.

I made the trip to Philly to see Dr. Dawkins because: 1) I managed to a get a free ticket, 2) It was SUPPOSED to be the "Philomathean Society Annual Oration 2013: Dr. Richard Dawkins - "Proof, Science, and Skepticism: The Magic of Reality" lecture. 3) I managed to get my life-long friends to make the road trip, and 4) I may never have the chance to see Dr. Dawkins again, since I rarely travel.

So. I had a wonderful road trip, was treated,—at best— almost satisfactorily by the auditorium staff, met Dr. Dawkins, and enjoyed the lecture. The event was a book tour that was interrupted by a speaking engagement. I would think that getting an award that had only been given to three people before—in the TWO HUNDRED YEARS of the Society— would have been an event that Dr. Dawkins' handlers would have had on their calendar. I surmise that I could be wrong. In effect, Dr. Dawkins adapted his "book-tour lecture" to appease the audience. It was fine, just not what I expected.

"Founded in 1813, Philo is the oldest student group at the University and the oldest continually existing collegiate literary society in the United States. Throughout its nearly two hundred years of existence, the Society has pursued its mission of learning outside the classroom in whatever ways struck its membership best; a common answer to the question “what is Philo” is “whatever Philos want it to be.” 

Our host, Paul Mitchell the Oration Director, introduced Dr. Dawkins, he was VERY helpful to me. I thank him. Please click here to check out the Society's History.  

My thoughts on the lecture:

"For the 2013 Bicentennial Philomathean Annual Oration, Dr. Dawkins will address the audience on the necessary role of science and skepticism in the modern world."  That is what was SUPPOSED to happen. I was a bit disappointed that the lecture was the 200th Anniversary of the Philomathean Society's Annual Oration (the oldest in the United States) and that Dr. Dawkins was given an award that has only been given to 3 others in the past 200 years.

Don't get me wrong; it was a sound lecture that addressed science, skepticism and reality. However, I felt that it should have been a lecture about "the necessary role of science and skepticism in the modern world";  not a book-tour lecture. Dr. Dawkins made no mention of what the original lecture was supposed to be; though later remarked that he had been asked to speak about "proof". He admits that he changed the book chapter that he usually refers to and went on to speak on "Why Bad Things Happen" - a different chapter from "The Magic of Reality: How We Know What's Really True".  

Dr. Dawkins made very good points about disease, original sin, Sod's Law, and lucky charms. I liked what followed about the "universe is not out to get you" and the "arms race" between predators and prey (those of you familiar with his writing will recognize this approach). He then reminded us of the importance of parasites and vaccinations. That was followed by a refresher on our immune systems and the fight against cancers. He posed the idea that a human's auto-immune diseases may be the body's evolutionary "arms race" against cancers. Just maybe, the immune system is ahead of the curve?

He then spoke about "Mitochondrial Eve", "Y Chromosome Adam", and "our most recent common ancestor". I agree, that there "had" to be one of each of those. I also agreed with his reasoning: that there is a mass of empirical evidence to back such scientific claims or as he put it - we never have to leave the armchair to prove any of those things.

Finally, he went back to the book-tour lecture and discussed why supernatural "miracles" are nonsense. Science MUST keep looking for answers to things that we have yet to grasp. Instead of pointing to the miraculous, we must admit that, "this is something we don't yet understand."

"Science has its own magic: the magic of reality." A fitting end to a very informative, however, not-what-I-expected lecture.

The Q&A was a bit of philosophical nonsense and a bit of confrontational sarcasm. The second questioner was quite a bit over the top.

Over all, I very much enjoyed seeing Dr. Dawkins in person. When I met him afterward, he was cordial, though obviously had had a long day. I told him that reading "The Ancestor's Tale" had enabled me to teach my mom about common ancestors and the like.

I look forward to eventually seeing him in person again.