Friday, 25 February 2011

Think Week goes from strength to strength

Oxford Think Week's evening event for Thursday was a surprisingly entertaining discussion between Professor Peter Atkins (Chemistry) and Professor Steven Law (Philosophy).  Can Science Alone answer our questions?

This was far from the dry debate that it could have been if we had not been so fortunate.  It was the most interesting, thought provoking and entertaining event I had attended since . . . well . . . Wednesday!  This week is a veritable feast.  If I try to keep this post short, do not take that as a lack of enthusiasm but more a sign of typing induced stress!  (Or maybe it is a lack of intellectual stamina?  But in saying that I think of the words of a friend who tells me sometimes that I am "indulging in another bout of self-deprecation".  And although English is not her first language I would trust her as a proof reader any day!)

Professor Atkins was clear from the outset.  There are three ways of acquiring knowledge:
  • Reading ancient texts (Religion)
  • Thinking (Philosophy)
  • Experimenting (Science)

Theologians obfuscate, nobody else is quite sure what Philosophers do (but it tends to end up in circular arguments), and Scientists illuminate.  But we have to distinguish real questions from empty questions.  Science can't yet answer all questions but that doesn't mean that it never will, and the progress of the last 100 years has been amazing compared with 10,000 years using the other two approaches.

Professor Law started by saying that he was a great admirer of the empirical sciences.  He regards them as a great tool, and possibly the only tool we have.  He thought that some questions were impossible to address in principal, but that didn't mean that they were off-limits. He had the impression that the majority of scientists were not so wedded to the idea of scientism and gave a few examples of questions that were conceptual rather than scientific.  (One was the example of Galileo's thought experiment about dropping a heavy and a light ball and deciding which would fall faster, and how that would be affected if they were joined together.)  He wanted to separate the 'is' questions from the 'ought' questions and suggested that you cannot logically get an 'is' out of an 'ought'.

I expect I am showing my slight bias by commenting that although he might have convinced some members of the audience (about 100 interesting people) he failed totally to convince his opponent.  For example, just because the answer is intuitively obvious, it does not mean that the result of an experiment will not surprise you.

Another big question, "Why was the universe created?" might not be a sensible question because it pre-supposes purpose.  Perhaps we should ask How instead of Why?

Obviously there is no conclusion, but I think I land on the side of scientism and enjoyed the journey.  What a wonderful evening with an opportunity to meet people I have admired from afar, and to look suitably foolish in front to them.  (I wish I had told Richard Dawkins how big an effect 'The God Delusion' has had on my life, and that I only read it because our vicar recommended it to my wife (who remains thoroughly Christian)!  Ho hum.  Maybe next time.)

As usual - failed to be concise in this post!  Whoops.

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