Interview with skydivephil, creator of superb videos
Many of you will have come across the superb videos of skydivephil on You Tube and embedded across various forums. That is, unless you have had your heads buried in the sand. I first came across them when they critiqued william Lane Craig on the Kalam Cosmological Argument as can be seen here:
Whilst they have not produced a huge slew of videos, what they have produced are thought-provoking, analytical videos of high-production value. The subjects concentrated on have revolved around cosmology and science: the Kalam Cosmological Argument, the Fine-Tuning Argument and most recently, looking at the ideas of a Big Bang singularity and a bouncing universe scenario as potentially described by Loop Quantum Cosmology, itself spawning from notions of quantum gravity:
But the pair who make up skydivephil are fairly secretive inasmuch as they are (rightly) content to let the content of their videos do the talking. With Phil deriving from the UK and Monica from the other side of the pond, they make a good team. One of the most famous recent videos, well, pair of videos, concerned William Lane Craig (a common target) and his claims made in the debate he had with Stephen Law which I was at. In this debate, Craig claimed that there were three types of pain awareness and that humans and only a few of the great apes could really feel pain, thereby excusing huge torrents of animal pain and suffering as evinced by the problem of evil. He used a book by Michael Murray.
Skydivephil took the claims to task and then William Lane Craig devoted a podcast to answering it. To which skydivephil blew him out of the water:
Lawrence Krauss recently tweeted my last post which documented this and these videos, which was nice, as this came up in his recent debates with Craig in Australia. Which was nice.
Anywho, without further ado, let me give you the interview and I implore any readers who have not watched their videos to do so!
1) Your videos defending scientific viewpoints, whilst at the same time debunking improper use of science, are great and are often posted and shared around skeptical and atheistic forums. However, there is a good deal of “who are these guys?” and mystery which accompany the videos. Can you give us some pertinent details about who you are and what your backgrounds are?
Phil’s answers are in blue. Monica’s comments are in red.
I don’t want to give out too much detail, as we prefer to let our work speak for ourselves. My education was originally in quantative finance but I also went back to University to study astronomy in the evening after work, which was a really wonderful experience. I met my well-read, curious and adventurous wife skydiving in California and after doing a few not-very-good videos by myself we decided to make it more of a team effort.
2) What are your belief systems or worldviews?
I guess the sort of scientific skepticism that was promoted by people like Carl Sagan would be the best umbrella term of our current world views. I think the concept that our beliefs should be in proportion to the evidence is a very appropriate one.
Phil was raised Jewish in the UK and I was raised Catholic in the US. By our teenage years, we each recognized that some of the stories in the bible are horribly shocking with very different underlying lessons from what is taught, so we veered from our given paths at a young age. A sense of wonder, joy and awe of our universe and life drives my worldview and my desire to learn and understand more about everything. I appreciate that we will not likely ever have all the answers; I feel no need to replace that un-knowing with religious faith.
3) You seem to harbour a great love for William Lane Craig (like many of us). What is it about him which drives your critical videos of his claims?
I think first off he is the most visible apologist out there. Not only do some of his debates have almost 1 million hits in youtube but also many Muslim apologists seem to copy him word for word. So he’s very influential. He’s probably the best they (the theists) have, in terms of getting his message across to the public. I also think for the most part atheists have done a terrible job in debating him. They don’t seem to prepare at all and I think he beats them in most debates. Not because he’s right but finding out why he’s wrong takes a lot of time and research, which most people don’t seem to want to invest. Craig seems to be almost a professional debater and is ready on a lot of topics. Many of the people he debates may have great knowledge in their specialist field but as soon as they step out of that they are simply not prepared. You can’t blame them; debating is not their day job.
3) If you were to debate WLC, what would be your tack?
I think anyone that does any live debate should change the format. Opening statements and rebuttals should be written in advance to each other and the moderator so each person has time to check the claims of the other. This would encourage a thoughtful, researched debate rather than shooting from the hip. For example when WLC said animals don’t have a prefrontal cortex (PFC), Stephen Law had no time to check the accuracy of that statement and so WLC got away with it, at least there and then. Under my scheme that’s less likely to happen.
4) Do you think in terms of cosmology and quantum that there is a good case for sitting on the agnostic fence, given that these disciplines are in their infancy?
Well cosmology and quantum science have been around since the 1920’s and we’ve learnt a lot but there’s clearly more to learn and plenty of room for disagreement. There are numerous open questions that we should set on the fence on for now. Take the issue of the beginning of the universe. Right now we simply don’t know if it had one or not. We know there was some kind of big bang event. It’s amazing that we can look back in time 13.8 billion years and say that. But the exact nature of this event and whether or not it was really the ultimate beginning or just the start of a phase of expansion is still open and we should not say things with a confidence that is not justified. Professionals in the field need to make decisions on what line of approach they find most compelling, as they need to invest the time in analyzing these models. But the rest of us should wait for the data to decide and when we have insufficient data then we should admit it.
5) Given that, as a team, you appear to be trans-Atlantic, is there any noticeable difference between approaches to religion and science between the two sides of the pond?
Europe is very open to skepticism and unbelief. In the US religion dominates; it’s starting to change there a bit and a lot of that seems to be down to the young generation resenting the intolerance of religion especially to the LGBT community. The opposition to equal rights for LGBT’s comes from religious groups for the main part and that I think is having a real effect. Skeptics are getting better organized too and the Internet is a way for people to get a message across that might otherwise be inaccessible. We can only hope this is a significant change and not a small blip.
I’m amazed at how little weight religion holds in the UK. There is no separation of Church and State and yet no one really places any store by it or calls on it to guide their actions. I think for many in the UK, it is merely a way of connecting with a community rather than a belief system by which to live. In America (where, of course, there is theoretically a separation of Church and State) it does indeed dominate. In my family for example, religion dictates virtually everything they do and say and every interaction or experience in life. Though educated and smart, I think they simply don’t ask questions that could ruffle their (localized) worldview so when it comes to science, rather than oppose it or disagree with it, they simply sit in the back seat and obscure any potential sense of curiosity with the content haze of faith.
6) What is the outcome or feedback from your videos about which you are most proud?
When WLC made an entire podcast in an attempt to critique our animal suffering video I was a little nervous. Here was probably the most famous apologist in the world attempting to give us a 30 minute take down. I was worried that maybe he would say something we hadn’t thought of. But at the end of the 30 mins listening to the podcast I was overjoyed. I knew it would be very easy indeed to create a strong rebuttal, as his response was so weak. He promised his colleague Michael Murray would write a response to our scientific claims. It’s now 7 months later and still nothing. A lot of bloggers said this was the best take-down of WLC they had ever seen and we were very pleased at that.
7) Your videos appear to become more technically sophisticated as time passes. What is your next step; are you going to continue to produce these videos, or do you have any other plans to extend the work you have done?
Thank you. We will probably just stick with the videos at the moment but we are open to other media.
8) You have covered evolution and censorship, the Kalam, fine-tuning, and cosmology. Is there a particular topic that you are working on now or would really like to work on in the future?
I think the plan at the moment is to do more in the “Before the Big Bang” series. I’d like to make more films exploring different ideas about the early universe. There are so many exciting and inventive ideas out there. Maybe one of these models is right, maybe the truth is still waiting to be revealed to us in a new idea. But the problem is these ideas are buried in technical literature that very few people can understand. There are some documentaries that cover some of these ideas but they don’t ask challenging questions. That’s what we want to do.
9) As I often ask, what are your top three nonfiction and fiction books?
The Big Bang by Simon Singh. Anything by Singh is awesome, he’s such a good writer and what I really like about this book is that reads like a detective story. It only goes into the classical big bang picture rather than the whole issue of quantum gravity and inflation but its still a wonderful read.
Evolution by Karl Zimmer. Again what makes a really good science book in my opinion is that it has a narrative drive and this book has that in spades.
A Man on the Moon by Andrew Chaikin – this is the story of the Apollo programme and what a grand adventure it was, and Chaikin tells the tale in a way that makes it extremely hard to put down.
Lord of the Rings by Tolkien, surely no comment needed here!
The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Philip K Dick
Dick was a real visionary and his books are very thought provoking and of course fun. Moreover his characters are people that you can really empathize with, not unbelievable heroes but every day people with normal failings. All his books challenge our notions of reality. How do we tell what is real and what is illusion?
The Master of Space and Time by Rudy Rucker. Rucker is a sci-fi author who deserves to be better known. He’s a mathematician who has also written some great non-fiction work on issues like higher dimensional geometry and the theory of infinite sets. But this book is a comic tale of two scientists who work out a way to change the value of the Planck scale. It’s really the story of the peasant who gets three wishes in disguise. Not a book to be taken seriously but just a lot of fun.
With the caveat that I may wish to amend my selection within the hour (so many to choose from!), these are my current choices:
Quantum by Manjit Kumar
Big Bang by Simon Singh
Agent Zigzag by Ben Macintyre
The Lord of the Rings Trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien
Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts
The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley
Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling (I know, I’m sorry that’s FOUR! I could not help myself.)
Thanks so much to the tow of them for taking the time to answer my questions. Keep up the great work!
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