Science knows best, or does it? #londonthinks @ConwayHall @ProfFrancesca @AdamRutherford @giles_fraser

@ConwayHall tonight a #londonthinks event from The Ethical Society chaired superbly by Samira Ahmed, with:

Adam Rutherford @AdamRutherford – scientist, atheist, writer and humanist.
Rev Giles Fraser @Giles_Fraser – priest, Grauniad columnist and humanist.
Francesca Stavrakopolou @ProfFrancesca historian of religions of the book, atheist humanist but expressly not “new atheist”.

Billed unimaginatively by some for the hard of thinking as a “battle” between science and religion it proved in fact to be a very interesting discussion. Dozens of tweets fired off with quotes, with and without the #londonthinks tag. Despite obviously touching on all the usual freedoms of thought and expression and human rights topics, the conversation got on with using them constructively rather than shouting “about” them. Ditto all the hoary old chestnuts of life after death, the supernatural, Godwin’s law, ethics as a metaphysical layer beyond science, Wordsworthian romanticism, love, and the dumb things the unscientific believe, all got an airing, but …

As noted by Giles, the scariest cheer of the night went to Adam’s assertion that the essence of science is contingency and doubt. Scary because there was an eerie certainty to the popular agreement – politically-correct received-wisdom.

However, on knowability, Adam was certain – a kind of logical truism – that everything was conceivably knowable to science. The idea that some things were unknowable or in any sense both true and not true he considered nonsense, but he also conceded that scientific answers to questions of knowledge might not be the most interesting to society at large.

Francesca too couldn’t see the sense in the idea of being both true and not – but in her case this was a matter that belief in objective truth was itself overrated. In Francesca’s case, it was about the sociality of belief in hopes and fears in action; largely physical in fact, rather than any conceptual logical belief in definitive or objectively-true knowledge as understood by normal western male intellect. The same point reinforced explicitly by Giles with a Wittgensteinian reference.

Interesting is about what is in the best interests of humanity and the cosmos. Disingenuous of science to highlight its doubt and contingency whilst maintaining certainty in science as somehow methodologically the best way to know anything. What is good for science – the content and processes of science – is not necessarily in all our best interests – beyond scientific activities.

I’m a scientific technologist, an atheist and a humanist, but yet again I identify most strongly with Francesca’s enlightened good sense and with the theologian ahead of the professional scientist. The latter closing with the claim:

“I have to remain faithful to the objectivity of truth”.

There we have it.

[Full audio recording here. Full video on YouTube here.]

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