Trying to reconcile Sciene and Religion: So Gauche!

Don’t worry, having been shamed by Nicole, this not another whiny post about baby talk and idiot colleagues. I found this exchange on the New Humanist Blog to be funny:

In our current issue, AC Grayling reviews Questions of Truth by John Polkinghorne and Nicholas Beale, a collection of essays that claims to address 51 “Questions About God, Science and Belief”. Suffice to say, Grayling wasn’t a fan (one star was awarded in the print magazine).

Polkinghorne is a particle physicist-turned-theologian who won the Templeton Prize (which rewards attempts to reconcile religion and science) in 2002, while Nicholas Beale is a former student of Polkinghorne who, while he describes himself as a “social philosopher/management consultant” in real life, manages Polkinghorne’s website and blogs about religion and science in his spare time.

On top of dissecting the text itself, at the end of his review Grayling outlined his problem with the fact that the book was receiving a launch at the Royal Society (an event which happened on 2 March): “Polkinghorne dishonours the Royal Society by exploiting his Fellowship to publicise this weak, casuistical and tendentious pamphlet on its precincts, and the Royal Society does itself no favours by allowing Polkinghorne to do it.”

Beale must have picked up on Grayling’s review, and in particular his comments about the Royal Society, as he wrote to him questioning his objections to that event and inviting him to a similar event coming up at the Royal Institution on 1 April, which will be chaired by historian of religion Stewart Sutherland. I’ve reproduced Beale’s email to Grayling below, followed by Grayling’s fantastic response. Enjoy.

The exchange is below the fold.

Beale to Grayling

Dear Professor Grayling

Apart from anything else, I wonder you reconcile endorsement [sic] by Nobel Laureates, Onora O’Neill chairing the launch discussion and two other FRSs happy to share the platform, with your “discreditable … scandal” tropes; and whether you think it is consistent with a real commitment to truth to conceal these points from your readers?

You may be interested to know that we have another somewhat similar event at the Royal Institution on the evening of April 1 (7pm-8:30), chaired by Stewart Sutherland FBA – who also attended the “scandal” at the RS. If you feel capable of engaging usefully on these issues, you would be more than welcome to attend, and contribute to the discussion.

Yours sincerely

Nicholas Beale

PS FWIW Martin Rees agreed to the launch discussion at the RS because I asked him – he knew about the book for a while and (as explained in the book) checked the “debunked” Appendix A. But then how can his understanding of these issues be compared to yours? Videos of this event are on YouTube, available through the website.Grayling to Beale

Dear Mr Beale

There is an informal fallacy of logic known as the argumentum ad verecundiam, the appeal to authority, and you persist in committing it. It is a matter of indifference how many Nobel laureates attended the launch of your pamphlet: my point is that there are hundreds of churches and church halls up and down the country, and theological colleges, and cathedrals, mosques, synagogues, and temples, all the detritus of our anciently superstitious past still purveying their competing nostrums to the present, where you could quite suitably peddle your wares: but there is one Royal Society, which is the nation’s premier institution of science, dedicated to enquiry premised on public and repeatable testing of evidence, ready to change its mind in the face of counter evidence, and knowing what would falsify its hypotheses. It should not have entertained the launch of your pamphlet, and it is doubtless your trading on the Rev. Polkinghorne’s fellowship that enabled you to make use of the place for your purposes.

The scandal resides in the fact that this was comparable to the premises of the Royal Society being used to promote astrology, healing with crystals, or worship of the Norse gods. For as your pamphlet yet again shows – it being familiar stuff, save for your novel but bizarre attribution of free will to nature as an “explanation” of natural evil – religious apologists are not in the same business as scientists, but wholly in the business of metaphysical casuistry: twisting, interpreting, rationalising, cherry-picking, appealing to ignorance and special pleading. It is very sad stuff you drag into the light again; if it did not rest on a continuum whose nether end lies in murder – heretics at the stake, fundamentalists wearing suicide bomb vests – it would be comic.

It is clear that I have touched a nerve with you, as your blog and your now writing to me shows; but having devoted enough attention to your views I have no wish for further correspondence, so however stung you feel by knowing that others think ill of your insinuating your superstitions into scientific institutions in the hope of some credibility rubbing off on them, there is no need to write again to tell me so.

Yours sincerely

Anthony GraylingBeale has continued to write about this on his own blog, so you can follow any further developments there. In the meantime, let us know what you think of this exchange by commenting on this post.

Clearly this is the only solution:

1 thought on “Trying to reconcile Sciene and Religion: So Gauche!

  1. Not having read the book I can make no comment about its rigor or lack thereof, but it does strike me that Grayling seems to have a serious chip on his shoulder with regards to anything that falls outside of the realm of science, which makes me wonder whether he gave the book a fair reading, regardless of the arguments presented… Why is it always assumed (on both sides of the debate) that one’s own perspective is free from irrational presupposition, while the other is “very sad stuff”? Grayling may not think religion deserves any attention in the Royal Society, but why should others care what his opinion may be? I’m not saying this to be flippant… from his letter, he sounds like any rational person should automatically take his side without any discussion. That doesn’t seem rational to me.

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