Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Science Studio - AC Grayling -The Good Life

a one hour conversation with philosopher Anthony Grayling October 3, 2008
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On Darwin
GRAYLING: Well of course, I’m a great admirer of Darwin. And I think his life and work is not just important from the point of view of the contribution that he made to the biological sciences, you know, a transforming, revolutionary contribution really, but also his life and work is in itself iconic in a certain way. Because if you think about his own personal progression from a kind of unreflective, nominal faith, the possibility of going into the church, and then his own realization as he traveled and studied and looked at evidence. Contrast, for example, Darwin’s journey, intellectual journey, from a reflex unquestioning Anglican to an agnostic or an atheist, to somebody like Edmund Gosse who, presented with the same sort of evidence, struggled like mad to hang onto his religious faith and to reinterpret everything in the light of it. Between the two of them they are, as it were, the opposite poles of something that happens when science really does come into conflict with the ancient stories, the ancient creation myths and the rest.

And so there is something very courageous and poignant about Darwin’s life, because for a very, very long time he kept quiet, realizing the implications of what he was going to say. Very early on, early in the 1840s, he wrote, “I feel as if I have killed God.” In a sense, of course, he had. And heaven knows what might have happened if, you know, Russel Wallace hadn’t come along and chivvied him up a little bit and got him to publish eventually. Perhaps it would have all been posthumous.

On Science v Religion
You know I sometimes think that one of the impulses, and there are many, to accepting a religious view of the world is that it provides a narrative and closure and it’s very neat, it’s got a beginning and an end, and it’s got some solace attached to the story about the end. Whereas science gives us something very open-ended and inconclusive, that you have to live with, not knowing what the answers are yet, but being prepared to seek them, to carry on looking for them, and to struggling with the new and sometimes more difficult questions that arise when you do come up with some solutions.

And so it is with personal life, thinking about how you’re going to accept the inevitability of loss or grief. So for example, the minute that you enter into a relationship with another person, especially if you love that other person, one or other of you thereby contracts for loss. You know, if you marry somebody, one of you is going to die before the other one does. Loving somebody is buying into a certainty that there’s going to be hurt involved in it at some point. But to recognize that that is, in fact, part of the value of what you’ve done, and to accept that it’s in this life now, in the span of that relationship, that all the best that you can make out of it must be made. Now that seems to me to be deep and courageous, that view of life. Whereas, sticking with a sort of reflex view of, oh it doesn’t matter because you’ll meet up again later, or you know, everything’s going to come right in the end, is, it’s a kind of shallow, inexpensive view of life, if you like.

On Bertrand Russell
BINGHAM: who influenced you the most in your thinking?
GRAYLING: Well it’s hard to say that. I think, in my sort of more technical work, I suppose Kant and Aristotle and people like that have been big influences. But somebody I regard as having been quite an exemplary philosopher, both in the technical sense and in the more public sense, would be somebody like Bertrand Russell. Now there was a man who, whatever else you think about him, at least spoke his mind, and I think made quite serious and important contributions to social changes. That book of his, for which he won the Nobel Prize, published in the early ‘30s, Marriage and Morals, was a book which, if you were to trace its influence on thinking in the post-war period, probably a very significant one. So you know, the social and moral revolution of the ‘50s and ‘60s may have something to do with what Russell had to say. If true, that shows you that philosophy does bake bread.

On Proselytising to children (@ 40 minutes)
BINGHAM : Are there any discoveries that you’d like to have made? Anything you’re…? GRAYLING: Well I wouldn’t have minded coming up with the general theory of relativity, for example, that would have been fun. But I think, what I would like now is, above all else, to discover a way of persuading everybody to leave kids alone, I mean small children alone, from the point of view of them with religious beliefs. If you’d only just leave children to get on with a standard course of education, perhaps learn about all the, you know, the mythologies and religions of the past, without being persuaded by parents or schools or society into one or another religious commitment, before they’re in a position to evaluate it properly, then I’m sure the influence of religion in society would be considerably less.

On Creationism in Science Lessons
BINGHAM: It is interesting that, I mean, literally in the last four days, five days after the meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, Michael Reiss, who is Director of Education at the Royal Society, which is Britain’s major academy of science, I suppose, founded in 1660, had to resign because he gave a talk entitled “Should creationism be a part of the school curriculum?” And I believe, I think he makes that case, does he not, I mean, he is indeed a cleric, isn’t he. Could you speak to this a little bit, because this is an interesting story?
GRAYLING: He’s Professor of Science Education at the Institute of Education at the University of London and he’s a Fellow of the Royal Society, and was their Director of Education Policy. Now it happens that he’s been; it was I think a mistake, on his part, and a misrepresentation, on the press’s part, which is the usual way that these things get out of hand. He said that he thought that when school pupils brought up the question of intelligent design or creationism in science classes, that science teachers should talk to them about it, should be prepared to respond and explain why the idea of creationist thing didn’t, doesn’t wash, and what the scientific view is. But the line that he was taking was that they should be treated with respect, these views, and they should be responded to. So you might think that that was a reasonable thing to say. But the Royal Society itself has always had, as a policy, since the issue really blew up, that I.D. and creationism have no place in the science curriculum at all, and that responsible science teaching should teach science and not, you know, all these different stories. And other people have commented, as I have myself done, that of course schoolchildren should be taught about the religions and the mythological traditions and the legends, on a comparative basis, as part of history or social studies or something. And that if these questions were to arise in a science class, that science teachers should say, the proper place for this discussion is in your history lesson or your social science lesson, although they could take the opportunity perhaps to talk a bit about why scientific method is the more appropriate thing to be applying to those sorts of questions. Seems to me that the, that Reiss’ resignation was the right thing, it was the right thing for the Royal Society to say, I’m afraid you’re going to have to quit this. Not because it’s strictly fair to Reiss, but because it reinforces the point that the Royal Society came to make, mainly that science is one thing, and that all the different sorts of creationist stories and legends, of which of course there are dozens and dozens, are more properly dealt with elsewhere.

On why Science matters
BINGHAM: What do you think we should do, what should be happening vis-à-vis science now, in terms of getting it before the public? Proposals?
GRAYLING: Well I think everybody in science who has the ability and the interest ought to be trying to communicate with a much wider audience about what they do, why they do it and why it matters. And that people who care about science, even if they’re not in science themselves, should support that and should try to make people conscious of the fact that there are a number of different sciences, that many of them are of great and immediate interest and importance to progressive flourishing of society and to individuals. Because the case is easily made in connection with biomedical sciences but, you know, even in pure research in physics and in chemistry, we never know what new ideas might come forward and new things be discovered, and that tends to happen all the time. So make the point that science is important, that investment, even in blue sky science, really matters, that as an intelligent, mature society, we should always be pushing the limits of research, always be prepared to put our hands in our pockets for the big things like the north-south hemisphere investigations of the sky, you know, because there’s been controversy about the funding of that just recently, the CERN project. You know, there are all these big endeavors, and all the really important projects involved with science education and public understanding of science and keeping science alive in schools, that all those things tremendously matter. Why they matter--say something about the history, because the history of science is very exciting--and the preparedness of governments and societies as a whole, really to fund this properly and make it work and put their shoulders to the wheel. That, I think, is what we need to be saying now, because so long as the caricature view prevails, and as long as there’s this, you know, polarized debate between religion, as if that were one thing, and science, as if that were one thing, goes on, what we’re going to get in the end is a very evacuated, a very tenuous understanding of both sides of the argument.

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