Ways of Knowing: my talk in Bangalore

Here’s the full content of yesterday’s talk in Bangalore, “Ways of Knowing: Science versus Everything Else”, along with the questions at the end. Due to my poor hearing and occasional inability to make out Indian-accented English, I had to ask for some help in translating a few questions.

It was livestreamed but is now on YouTube. It was delivered at the Indian Academy of Sciences as part of an outreach program that has just been initiated by a number of Indian scientists.

I won’t listen to this, as I hate hearing my own talks, but it did create a great deal of discussion among the audience, which continued for an hour at tea after the talk. The older folk were more resistant to the notion that religion was not a way of knowing anything true about the cosmos, but many students came up to me after the talk and expressed sympathy with my viewpoint. By and large, and as in America, it appears that most Indian scientists are nonbelievers.

If it’s a bad talk, please don’t tell me!

Amitabh Joshi, who introduced me, was my host at the Nehru Institute in Bangalore.


  1. Diane G.
    Posted December 28, 2017 at 1:56 am | Permalink

    I haven’t had time to listen to this yet, but did have a brief look at the vid. Note that there is no sound until about 3:30. (Sound kicks in well before Jerry’s introduced, though.)

  2. Posted December 28, 2017 at 2:07 am | Permalink

    Really good! 🙂

  3. John Coelho
    Posted December 28, 2017 at 2:15 am | Permalink

    This or that Hindu belief may be contradicted by science but practices like meditation, chanting, fasting and yoga will never be in conflict with any empirical discovery. In fact they are an empirical process of a different kind.

    • Posted December 28, 2017 at 2:18 am | Permalink

      First of all, I never made the claim you’re implying I am. Second, some of the putative benefits of those practices may not be what they claim to be, so in that sense they could be making false empirical claims.

    • Torbjörn Larsson
      Posted December 28, 2017 at 3:24 am | Permalink

      Seriously? If you are guaranteed (how?) from the outset that they work and they will always be working (how do you test that?), then they are indeed not processes nor of an empirical (observable, testable) kind.

      AFAIK none of those practices have a good empirical support for any extraordinary claim. And why would they? E.g. meditation has at most the same benefits as other resting, chanting has at most the same benefits as other singing, fasting has no known benefits same as every other food fad, yoga is at most no better than other stretching (but I think I have seen warnings for excessive damage statistics), and on and on.

      • John Coelho
        Posted December 28, 2017 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

        The benefits are far greater and there is scientific evidence, for example eeg tests that prove it. Fasting is not just another food fad and when done carefully can enhance health and general spirits.

    • Posted December 28, 2017 at 8:25 am | Permalink

      The empirical evidence against fasting is hunger, poor nutrition and death. Yoga is just low impact exercise: you don’t need to swallow any mystical guff for it to be effective. Ditto meditation: I’d prefer a quick nap.

      • Gregory Kusnick
        Posted December 28, 2017 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

        Both you and Torbjörn seem to have a mistaken idea of what meditation is about. If someone suffers from insomnia due to anxiety, telling them to take a nap isn’t going to help. But teaching them how to let go of their anxiety might help. That’s what meditation is about, and you don’t need to swallow any mystical guff to get that benefit.

        Interestingly, Sam Harris has just posted a podcast on “The Science of Meditation”, which I have not yet listened to. Perhaps he’ll have some relevant empirical results to report.

      • Sanjeev
        Posted December 28, 2017 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

        Look into the work done by Richard Davison from University of Wisconsin.
        The claims about meditation have been verified with rigorous testing. Not all claims of meditation are true, but some of them are definitely true. And, it’s not simply taking a quick nap or taking a cold shower.

    • Posted December 28, 2017 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

      Yoga and fasting become dangerous when they are conducted according to religious ideology. Just among my small circle of friends (most of whom are kind of spiritual) I know several who have injured themselves doing yoga that’s based on dogma rather than physiology.

      What science has to offer spirituality is to delineate boundaries that keep you safe and protect you from being defrauded, as well as indicating which ideas are clearly a waste of time.

  4. rickflick
    Posted December 28, 2017 at 6:33 am | Permalink

    Good talk. The questions show that there are a lot of misunderstandings within that population. I imagine the tea talk was equally entertaining.

  5. Diana MacPherson
    Posted December 28, 2017 at 7:40 am | Permalink

    Isn’t it the worst when you can’t hear? After I say “excuse me” or “what” or “what was that” after the 3rd time I just pretend to know what they said. I don’t have bad hearing but on occasion I think my brain just stops comprehending words (I think this is actually aphasia from migraines). Have you looked into hearing aids? I work with someone who is hearing impaired and you’d never know it as he wears discreet hearing aids in his ears. You only notice when you holler for him and he can’t hear or he walks away as you say something and misses it.

  6. Posted December 28, 2017 at 8:41 am | Permalink

    I prefer a pithy mix of vulgarity with a paraphrased Stephen Hawking quote: “It’s the scientific method versus making sh*t up, and science wins because it works.”

  7. Steve Barnes
    Posted December 28, 2017 at 10:11 am | Permalink

    Just finished watching. It seemed lovely to me, in particular your – for America – atypical and underrated insouciance during the question period.

  8. BJ
    Posted December 28, 2017 at 10:13 am | Permalink

    That was a great talk! You’re very good at telling people they’re wrong without sounding condescending, which is always important (especially for a subject like religion).

    Now you just need to explain what you meant by “Disco Evenings of Nightmare” in that post yesterday. That’s not the kind of thing you can just leave hanging out there. People will want to know the details.

    • Posted December 28, 2017 at 11:00 am | Permalink

      The “disco evenings” refers to a comment a few posts back about a very disturbed night due to the noisy disco on the floor above in his hotel.

      • BJ
        Posted December 28, 2017 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

        Ah, yes. I remember that now. I had an image in my head of Jerry being dragged by a friend to a disco and finding it appropriately nightmarish.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted December 28, 2017 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

          It’s funnier to imagine Jerry having a dream where he’s relentlessly pursued by rolling disco balls like Indiana Jones and that big rock.

  9. Jenny Haniver
    Posted December 28, 2017 at 11:09 am | Permalink

    Thanks for this. I’ve just begun to listen and want to say that after listening to Sam Harris debate Jordan Peterson about the nature of truth, Peterson made me want to blow my brains out (or his) in frustration, and SH kept saying that he didn’t understand what the heck Peterson was talking about, so I’m looking for some refreshing clarity.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted December 28, 2017 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

      I couldn’t finish that podcast. I honestly couldn’t understand what Peterson was trying to say and it made me doubt his whole status as some sort of intelligent provocateur since he seemed unable to speak very clearly. I always understand what Sam Harris is talking about, in contrast.

  10. Greg Geisler
    Posted December 28, 2017 at 11:50 am | Permalink

    This was a great talk. Your presentations are always so thorough and concise. The Q&A was a bit painful! Your frustration was evident but justified. I shared this with some of my younger family members. Thank you!

  11. BobTerrace
    Posted December 28, 2017 at 11:55 am | Permalink

    I enjoyed the talk. What I discerned by some of the questions is that some people do not listen to the words of the talk. They have preconceived notions that they defend beyond being a rational response to what was said.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted December 28, 2017 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

      It recently dawned on me that people actually come to talks with prepared questions. I thought this was brilliant but also limiting. I always just ask questions if I have any.

  12. Nell Whiteside
    Posted December 28, 2017 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

    Thanks. Enjoyed the talk. From the questions I wondered if most of the audience really understood what you had said?

  13. Posted December 28, 2017 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

    It was a good talk and a really good Q&A session after. I did spot a few interesting things:

    – After saying how science can’t prove anything absolutely, in one of your Q&A answers you stated that science “proves” the world is older than 10,000 years. Perhaps it is unwise to use proof in this way in such talks. While I am sure scientists use “proof” in informal conversation it is a bit sticky in talks like this as it sounds like you don’t really believe science is provisional.

    – I thought perhaps you were a bit hard on those in the Q&A whose comments were perhaps not quite questions. After all, it is reasonable to offer a counter opinion and ask you to comment on it. If someone wanted to pontificate, I saw no evidence of it.

    – One commenter asked about physicists using the term “beauty” to describe their work. IMHO, this deserved a better answer than “art and literature inspire hypotheses”. Scientists certainly do find beauty in their own work and a strong case can be made that science is beautiful. That doesn’t seem to disagree with your thesis but has little to do with generating hypotheses.

    – I think you missed one commenter’s point. He suggested that your arguments were really with “false beliefs” and not “religion” per se. While I agree that religion should be the target, I would have liked to have heard your answer.

  14. Posted December 28, 2017 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

    Great talk. Questions at the end were dealt with more than adequately. Viva science!

  15. Debbie Coplan
    Posted December 28, 2017 at 7:18 pm | Permalink

    Very, very well done.

  16. Posted December 28, 2017 at 8:20 pm | Permalink

    Professor Coyne, one the one hand, I disagree with your confession at 1:30:20 – that you are a pretty dull fellow -; on the other, I want to congratulate you on your articulation. English not being my mother tongue, thank you for making the subtitles practically unnecessary!

    I enjoyed the entire talk, and the gracious way you replied to some bad and/or badly formulated questions.

    On a side note: I think moderators of lectures should always remind the audience to ask one question each.

  17. Posted December 29, 2017 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

    Great talk, as usual.

    Posted December 30, 2017 at 9:16 am | Permalink

    I would like a transcript of this talk. Is there one available?

  19. Matt
    Posted January 1, 2018 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

    Where can I find a good phylogeny of religion like the one in your presentation?

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