Overview

The UK launch consisted of a Panel Discussion at the Royal Society, chaired by Onora O’Neill PBA FRS.  The authors were joined on the panel by Dr Denis Alexander and Prof Eric Priest FRS.

Launch ay Royal Society: Denis Alexander, Eric Priest FRS, Onora O'Neill PBA, John Polkinghorne FRS & Nicholas Beale

Launch at Royal Society: Denis Alexander, Eric Priest, Onora O'Neill & authors

After short opening remarks from the Chairmen and the Authors, there were comments from the two other panellists and then an open discussion with questions and comments from the floor, to which the panel responded.

In this section we have:

  • Opening Remarks (videos & transcripts) from:
    • Chairman (Prof Onora O’Neill)
    • John Polkinghorne
    • Nicholas Beale
    • Eric Priest
    • Denis Alexander
  • Questions/Comments from the floor, with responses (Videos here – Transcripts to follow)
  • Closing remarks (video & transcripts) from:
    • Eric Priest
    • Denis Alexander
    • Chairman (Prof Onora O’Neill)

Prof Onora O’Neill PBA Hon FRS – Opening Remarks

Good evening ladies and gentlemen. We’re here for a panel discussion of Questions of Truth a book by John Polkinghorne and Nicholas Beale. My name’s Onora O’Neill, I’m going to chair the discussion and keep us, if I can, strictly to time, and I shall begin by introducing the two authors and our two discussants.

The authors are Rev Dr John Polkinghorne beside me, who is of course both a physicist and a theologian, so who better to write on the questions about God, Science and Religion, and his co-author is Nicholas Beale, who is both a Social Philosopher, has a scientific background, has worked in many different capacities including as a management consultant, and runs the crucial website that lies behind this book.

Our discussants – there is a change in the programme because very sadly Denis Noble was not well enough to be here today – will be Eric Priest who holds the Gregory Chair of Mathematics and is Professor at the University of St Andrews and works on Solar Magneto-hydrodynamics, and Denis Alexander who is Director of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion at St Edmond’s College, Cambridge, and used to run the Molecular Immunology program at the Babraham in Cambridge.

Now I’m going to allow only 5 mins apiece from the two authors, before switching to initial comments from our discussants, then inviting the authors to have a brief say-so, then we shall open it all up.

I will just say at this stage that we all know that there could not be either a larger or a more topical set of issues. So topical is it that it has hit the sides of the London busses, and some of you will have seen a remarkable advertisement which reads: “there is probably no God, so be happy” or “so you can be happy”. Now it is fascinating in many ways, both that this is such an unlikely proposition to be qualified with “probably” but also the non sequitur between the two propositions. It does rather strike one that, if it were the case that there was probably no god, as many of our fellow-citizens might be unhappy at this discovery as would be happy.

In short, this matters to every man and every woman and is an enormous range of topics, and we shall inevitably touch only the surface.

John Polkinghorne FRS – Opening Remarks

People sometimes say that science is concerned with fact, but religion is concerned with opinion. But I think when they say that they make two mistakes, first of all they make a mistake about the nature of science which is more subtle and interesting than simple confrontation with unequivocal fact. There are no interesting scientific facts that are not already interpreted facts, and in order to interpret them we need to have theoretical opinion, so there is a subtle and cyclic intertwining of experimental experience and theoretical opinion in science, a circularity that I think we have every reason to believe in benign, rather than vicious, but it certainly isn’t completely straightforward.

Equally religion is not merely airy-fairy opinion. People sometimes think that faith is a question of shutting your eyes, gritting your teeth, and believing six impossible things before breakfast, because some unquestionable authority tells you that is what you have got to do. Well of course that’s not the case, and in fact religious belief does not involve intellectual suicide, and I couldn’t be a religious person if indeed it required that. I want always to say to my friends that I have motivations for my religious beliefs, just as I have motivations for my scientific beliefs. Of course they are different kinds of motivations because they are different kinds of beliefs. Science, putting it rather crudely, is concerned about the processes of the world – how things are happening – and religion is concerned about what is going on in the world, questions of meaning, and value, and purpose. Of course we need both, and I think that science and religion are in fact cousins, cousins under the skin, and the main reason that they are cousins is that they both share in this search for truth: truth to be attained through well-motivated belief.

And though that truth I think is attainable, it will never amount to absolute completeness or absolute certainty, either in science or in religion. My favourite philosopher of science is Michael Polyani, who was of course also a very distinguished scientist before he became a philosopher, and in his great book Personal Knowledge in the preface he says: “I am writing this book to explain how I may commit myself to what I believe to be true, knowing that it might be false.” And I think that’s the human condition, not only in relation to science but in relation to all worthwhile forms of knowledge. We have motivations for our beliefs, motivations sufficient for us to commit ourselves to them, to bet our lives on them indeed, but I don’t think we ever attain absolute certainty.

If the experience of doing science teaches you anything, I think it teaches you that the world is surprising, beyond our powers of anticipation. In fact that’s what makes science interesting, that you never know what you are going to find round the next corner. I can make the point simply by uttering the words “quantum theory”. Anybody in 1899 could have “proved” – indeed a first year student of philosophy could have “proved” – that it was impossible for something to behave sometimes like a wave, spread out and flappy, and sometimes like a particle, a little bullet. Nevertheless of course that’s how quantum entities behave, and now we understand how this comes about and how to understand it.

So science sees features of the world as surprising, and that means I think that in relation to scientific belief, and other forms of belief as well, the natural question for a scientist to ask, about whether the proposition that’s being put to him or her may be, is not, “is this reasonable” as if we knew beforehand the shape that rationality has to take. There are too many surprises in the world. It’s not “reasonable” to suppose wave/particle duality. The question we instinctively ask is both more open and also more exacting in a way: not “is it reasonable?” but “what makes you think that might be the case?” In other words, what you tell me may be very surprising, but I’m not going to believe it unless you offer me evidence, motivating evidence, for it. I’m very happy to approach my religious beliefs in this way, as well as my scientific beliefs, and in this little book Nick and I are both trying to approach questions of truth in that sort of spirit.

Nicholas Beale – Opening Remarks

Video is the 2nd part of the previous video

“What does it mean to say that the sky is blue? Is it true? Why?” Exploring this raises questions of physics, biology, philosophy and even, if you are that way inclined, theology. No-one has asked us why the sky is blue, but over the years people have sent us questions about science and religion. This book offers responses to some of the more interesting ones, together with three technical appendices. Unlike the body of the book, these have extensive footnotes and references and let people drill down if they want to.

In the first Appendix we set out the standard Anthropic Fine-Tuning arguments and engage specifically with Lee Smolin’s ideas about Cosmological Natural Selection – pointing out problems which were new to Lee. We also shoot a couple of rather hole-ridden fishes, one called the “747 Gambit”.

In the second Appendix we argue that identifying the Brain and the Mind is a category mistake, but the mind is something like a Pattern of Active Information rather than some kind of additional substance, and we try to expand on what we mean by “Active Information”. We also argue that if Quantum Mechanics is not completely deterministic then nor is statistical mechanics and hence nor is the working of the Brain. We strongly support the notion of incompatabilist free will, and sketch an argument about why evolution would favour its emergence.

In the Appendix on Evolution, we correct some historical misconceptions, discuss emergent properties and genetic reductionism – we’re against it! We discuss the evolutionary benefits of religion and the evolution of cooperation. (I’m particularly pleased, by the way, that we have a Darwin and a Huxley with us tonight).

We think this kind of dialogue around the intertwining of science and religion is really important. Extremists on both sides shout at each other (gaining publicity and followers) but bring Science, and Religion, into disrepute. Dialogue is needed for intellectual honesty, but also for practical reasons. Religion engages with people’s deepest values and priorities in a way that science doesn’t. We face really serious problems, like Global warming, which can only be addressed through deep values-driven changes in behaviour and sound scientific understanding. Never has constructive dialogue between science and religion been more essential.

We hope that this discussion, and our book, will help advance the dialogue. But we don’t want our book to constrain this discussion. Any questions or comments allowed by Onora are on-limits, whether or not they are addressed in our book.

We offer Responses, not Answers: we are not trying to tell people what to think. People may not agree with many, or even any, of our responses. But we hope that they will convince the intelligent reader that they are reasonable – or at least not un-reasonable. Belief in God – and specifically Christian belief – may or may not be mistaken. But it cannot reasonably be said to be a Delusion.

Opening Remarks by Panellists

Prof Eric Priest FRS – Opening Remarks

I come from St Andrew’s in Scotland, a small town by the sea, and recently we’ve been organising a series of public lectures on science and religion, funded by the Templeton Foundation. John Polkinghorne gave one and so did Denis Alexander, and they are looking at all the different aspects of the science and religion debate. The idea is to look at them in a high level way, not in a slogan manner, and I have been absolutely amazed at the response. It’s a small town, I expected at most 100-200 people to come along, and in fact 750 have been attending each time – so much so that we’ve had to move to the main graduation concert hall in St Andrews as being the only venue that was large enough.

So I echo what Nicholas was saying. My experience is that there is a real thirst out there for a genuine discussion and debate of these issues, and I want to congratulate them on an excellent addition to the science/religion debate. I think the question and answer format works really well, so that you can dip in at the points you are particularly interested in, and it’s complemented by three appendices, which give you more depth on the fine-tuning of the universe, the brain and evolution. It’s a remarkable book which I commend to you very strongly.

Colin Blakemore in the Observer a week ago, under the heading “science is one gene away from defeating religion” expresses a deterministic reductionist view when he says “when we understand how our brains generate religious ideas, what will be left for religion?” So that’s a question for our two authors.

Dr Denis Alexander – Opening Remarks

I first of all apologise for not being Denis Noble. The only similarity is that my name Denis is spelled with one n, which is more unusual, but apart from that I’m sure any similarities are coincidental, and we are both biologists, so I’m glad to be here to help in the discussion in biology. I greatly value this book also. I’ve dipped into it, as I think one is supposed to do, and haven’t read it from cover to cover, though I have enjoyed what I’ve read.

And one of the things I am particularly interested in, in this Darwin anniversary year, is what John was saying right at the beginning, the interpretation of facts. And I think it’s very remarkable that he evolutionary narrative, as it has been spoken about in the media, books and so forth over these past few weeks has been about the interpretation of facts, and it has been quite striking the way people have interpreted evolutionary biology in different ways, from a metaphysical point of view.

Many people want to plant their favourite ideology on this wonderful theory. And one of my pleas, I suppose, as a biologist, during this anniversary year, is we might be able to deliver Darwin from all these encrusted ideological barnacles that have been, as it were, placed upon him, and be able to each biology, and teach evolutionary biology, in a way that’s giving the science and emphasising and highlighting the biology, and I appreciate the way that that focus, that emphasis, is there in the book in front of us.

This also leads me then to my question, I have many questions, but I would like to ask the authors this question: to what extent do they think that evolutionary history supports their own personal belief in God, or to what extent perhaps it challenges their belief in God, or whether perhaps they believe at the end of the day the evolutionary narrative is simply metaphysically neutral.



Closing Remarks from Panellists and Chair

Prof Onora O’Neill – Closing Remarks

I found, dipping into this book – and we are liberated to admit that we dip in this book – that probably the most interesting thought to me was, early on, the point made about the incompleteness of certain sorts of enquiry, with due reference to Gödel and of course that in a sense tells us how deep incompleteness goes in our thinking: that even in systems of arithmetic we find that there are truths that cannot be proved.

I think that beyond that I would note that again and again we have had thoughts expressed in various ways that Empirical Enquiry has its limits, and of course in particular I would note that Normative Enquiry cannot be reduced to Empirical Enquiry, and probably even those who would firmly sign themselves atheists have certain normative views, indeed I suspect that a human life cannot be lived without it. So my guess is that we are on very firm ground when we argue for the incompleteness of empirical enquiry, not merely that we haven’t found everything out, but that Empirical Enquiry is buttressed by other forms of endeavour, which include at least I would think Normative Enquiry, analytic approaches and interpretive approaches.

But I would say the same of Normative Enquiry that it requires the other three, and I’m not certain whether all forms of Analytic and Interpretive Enquiry require Empirical and Normative approaches, though I suspect they do and there may be others.

So in the spirit of open-mindedness and enjoyment let’s go and have a drink, and I’d like to thank our authors and our panellists, thank you very much (applause).

“a refreshing contrast to the polemic and misinformation that have characterized much of the writing in this area” William Phillips

“Richly nuanced responses … simply a fantastic resource” Francis Collins

“Wonderfully accessible, informative and authoritative.” Alister McGrath

“an important contribution” Martin Nowak

“this matters to every man and every woman” Onora O’Neill

“of universal interest. Many readers will welcome this accessible format” Publishers Weekly

“antidote to Richard Dawkins … intriguing … a thought-provoking work” Library Journal

“deals eloquently with many of the issues…in the science-religion debate.” Times H. E.

“commendably clear…those who would most benefit from reading it are… atheists who believe that the religious are manifestly irrational” FT.

“remarkably even-handed …lucid explanations … a valuable lesson” Physics World

“rich…digestible..intriguing” Church Times

“evokes the shimmering beauty of a stained glass window … will repay rereading and rereading” Living Church.

One Erratum has been found in Appendix A – see here.

The new Polkinghorne Q&A website is now here.