I spent all of last week at a summer school on science, philosophy and religion hosted by the Faraday Institute of St Edmund’s College, Cambridge. I found the course absolutely excellent and have tried to summarize most of the talks on a daily basis as the conference progressed (see last four posts below). You can also find a list of speakers and talks on the conference website .
All that is left to do is to make a few general observations. I found the school quite exceptional, a real treat for anyone with an interest in the history and philosophy of science, and its impact on religion (and vice versa). A different topic was tackled each day, from historical and philosophical interactions between science and religion on Tuesday to Big Bang cosmology on Wednesday, from the theory of evolution on Thursday to ethical challenges in contemporary science on Friday. Each day would begin with an introductory overview of the basic science (or history), followed by talks on slightly more specific subjects. Each talk would finish by exploring the philosophical and theological implications of the science.
All the speakers kept good time, leaving 30 minutes of question/answer session after each talk. This definitely made for good audience participation. This was followed by a panel discussion every evening on questions raised during the day.
Note: videos of the talks will be available on the multipage multimedia page of the Faraday website from mid-September only, apologies for misinformation in earlier posts.
St Edmund’s college, Cambridge
Other reasons for the success of the conference were
1. Fantastic environment; it’s hard to beat Cambridge on this, especially with everyone staying in the same college
2. All the talks were in the same venue, a nice small conference room that holds about 50.
3. Interdisciplinary nature; since the subject matter spanned science, history of science, philosophy and theology, none of the talks were too specialised, the bugbear of most scientific conferences
4. All the talks were by world-class researchers, well used to giving public talks on their subject – a treat for anyone interested in the communication of science.
5. No parallel sessions; since everyone was at the same talk, it made for great discussions over dinner.
Coffee time outside the conference room
A number of my colleagues have expressed reservations about the course, pointing out that it is funded by the Templeton Foundation. All I can say is that all of the speakers presented the science or history in an unbiased way. The week was a treat in the history and philosophy of science, even for those with no interest in religion. That said, it was fascinating hearing renowned theologians criticizing the fundalmentalist positions taken by some religions (and atheists). No-one can demolish the Intelligent Design argument quite as comprehensively as an eminent theologian! Another good example of the impartiality of the conference can be seen in the fact that the scientific work of Richard Dawkins was cited on several occasions and two of his books were on sale on the conference table..
Speak of the devil! About 10 minutes after writing the above, I walked right past Richard Dawkins himself. He was walking up the back drive into Clare College just as I was wandering out. I wonder if he is giving a talk here in Cambridge? I was dying to ask, but he looked a bit tired and had luggage with him. Possibly not a good moment for questions from random strangers..