Thursday, 19 March 2009

AC Grayling politely rebukes an attempt to reconcile religion and science

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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.

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 www.questionsoftruth.org 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 Grayling
Beale 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.

23 comments:

Irregular Shed said...

I wish I could think of retorts as wonderfully eloquent as Grayling's last paragraph when faced with the Mormons at the door (Jehovah's Witnesses are so 20th Century).

quedula said...

Wonderful!

Christopher said...

I particularly liked:
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.

Brutal.

quedula said...

And: . . . . 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, . .

But its all good.

Sciolist said...

Using a Latin phrase for "appeal to authority" and referring to rules of logic is an appeal to authority in itself, which rather weakens the argument.

I don't like the closing paragraph much either - it's basically saying "I want the last word, thankyou, goodbye". If you have no interest in corresponding, the letter should simply state that.

Some of the stuff in the middle is very good though, particularly the continuum line that Christopher quotes above.

Nicholas Beale said...

Hilarious indeed. Either Grayling has laughably failed to understand the issues, or the people involved in the book and the launch are fools and dupes. So that's AC vs two Nobel Laureates, the Presidents of the RS and the BA, three FRSs happy to be on the launch Panel etc.. So touching that he still has such faithful followers.

How revealing that, when offered a chance to defend and debate his views at the Royal Institution, chaired by a world-class philosopher, he bottles out.

Sciolist said...

Nicholas, the issue at hand to one side for the moment - your comment is a lot more childish than his, so I can see why he wouldn't want to debate you.

Arandu said...

Love it, the difference in eloquence is remarkable, but more telling the casual superiority of Grayling's arguments - science doesn't have to twist and contort to justify itself as religion does.

Trav said...

Grayling's making himself look like a complete twat. Beale's politely offering him with an invitation to attend, then Grayling responds with ridicule.

Grayling deserves no respect. How bitter is he!? How sad. He insists on portraying himself as someone with serious issues.

Lambert said...

@ Sciolist

I don't agree that the use of the Latin term is an "appeal to authority", but rather a nice illustration of how old and tired that tactic is. Which is just one reason why such appeal should be denied.

As for the rebuke. What a burn!!! Totally on the money.

AT said...

Gotta go with beale on this one. For such a perceptive thinker, every time Grayling opens his mouth he sounds more petulant than the last time.

You can see Grayling spending a solitary evening with a keyboard, rubbing his hands in glee over each labored turn of phrase, when Beale obviously just sent him over a quick email inviting him to talk. And he accuses Beale of caring too much.

I do not like Grayling representing humanism. It leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

Steven Carr said...

Beale gets slaughtered on a discussion of the book at Beale crashes and burns


All Beale can do is drop names. He has zero arguments and zero evidence.

Anonymous said...

I had some difficulty construing "You may be interested to know that we have another somewhat similar event at the Royal Institution...you would be more than welcome to attend, and contribute to the discussion" as an invitation to debate Beale and Polkinghorne. No doubt, however, there is a hermeneutical interpretation of the quoted words that make them mean this; the theologically- inclined are practised in such techniques. - How well Mr Beale gets the point about the "appeal to authority": his response is again to cite "two Nobel Laureates, the Presidents of the RS and the BA, three FRSs"...
AC Grayling

Steven Carr said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Steven Carr said...

'The Royal Institution have kindly invited us to give a lecture on the evening of April 1 (our choice of date, not theirs!) It is 7.00pm-8.30pm and there will be plenty of time for comments/discussion. '

So a lecture is a debate?

And if you decline the pleasure of shelling out eight pounds to be lectured at by Polkinghorne/Beale for 90 minutes then you are scared of a debate?

Stephen Bain said...

I've been lectured at by Polkinghorne on the topic of science and religion before. I don't think I'd volunteer - and certainly not pay! - to do it again.

How revealing, that when challenged all Beale can do is name-drop.

Linus Pauling believed in pseudo-medical vitamin-C cures all claptrap and he had two Nobel prizes! So it must be right!
Childish nonsense.

Humphrey said...

Grayling is a smart chap. So why does his brain turn to jelly whenever he write on religion?. Bertrand Russell suffered from the same problem as I recall.

Kirk Yetton said...

Professor Grayling appears rather rude to me. Whatever happened to rational discussion?

Toby said...

Both Professor Grayling's retort and his original article are excellent examples of clear thinking, well expressed, with a hint of sarcasm. (My favourite "Were [Polkinghorne] a vicar who gave up the Church of England to become a physicist he would not be regarded as anything more special than sensible.")

I shall be subscribing to New Humanist on the strength of AC Grayling's reviews alone.

Anonymous said...

Mr Grayling is an insulting coward. If one refuses to even sit down at the chess board and make a move, one cannot, of course, be checkmated.

Anonymous said...

I really cannot understand why people can fall for such dishonest clap trap by Grayling. Atheists just listen or read to whatever he says or writes and just accept it because he is AC Grayling. It seems to be a familiar trend amongst atheists.

It doesn't make a difference how 'eloquent' or clever/snotty Grayling's writing is, the point is he frequently asserts instead of engaging in argument. Its quite sad to see a professor of philosophy fail at his own game. But of course Grayling is always right..or is he! Graylings review and retort were misleading and simply false. Why?....

http://philosopherjosh.wordpress.com/2010/07/10/ac-graylings-intellectualy-inept-rantings/

jeremy said...

I see Professor Grayling (whose letter above made me laugh most heartily) beat me to it with his comment above. Beale's response to being accused of falling prey to the argument from authority is... to quote more authorities! Priceless!!

Daniel Schealler said...

I love it when Grayling unsheathes his claws.

The rest of the time he seems so genteel, but then all of a sudden - snicker-snack!

Heh.