The following dinner/discussion was held at St Edmunds College after the public lecture on Thursday, 13th March 2003. Brief biographies of the contributors are provided at the end.

Simon Mitton

I am very happy that we welcomed Owen here today, who has been a close colleague of mine for over thirty years. We have never done any work together but we share many common interests. I have published two books written by Owen for Cambridge University Press, so we’ve had a close academic relationship in the history of science.
Turning to Owen’s talk this evening, what I found very interesting was the dichotomy which he set up between what is truth and what is persuasion. What do you convince yourself about through very rigorous and robust, logical, scientific, perhaps mathematically-based, arguments? Can one say that those convictions are truths, or in the end does it comes down to being persuasion?

I agree with Owen that, when pushed against the wall by philosophers, there are areas of physics and astronomy where it is very difficult to say whether there are matters that you can define as being truths. But in Owen’s area, and in mine, you’ve got a constant paradigm shift. I am not referring just to cosmology but also to particle physics, where we have a so-called standard model, which serves the same purpose as the ‘big bang’ in cosmology. In the standard model we sign up to all kinds of things, but then billions and billions of dollars are being spent on particle accelerators to probe the sub-atomic particles, and to find quark-gluonplasmas

In making our models, we’re doing the best we can, but to what extent will these ever amount to truth? At the moment I am working on an aspect of the history of the cosmological debate in the second half of the twentieth Century. In my research, what I find is that the opposed proponents of the big bang theory and of the steady state theory always defended themselves with punch and passion, in debates at the Royal Astronomical Society, or at University College London, or at the Royal Society. These cosmologists in the nineteen fifties, the nineteen sixties and the nineteen seventies, clearly, from my reading of archives and their papers, thought that their position was true rather than their position was something where they needed to persuade other people.

The person I’m writing about at the moment, Fred Hoyle, more or less gave up on trying to persuade other people. In the last third of his career his attitude was that the modified steady-state theory is clearly true. He gave up on the rhetoric and the writing of the papers. "I must be right, I can’t be wrong, I’ve laboured hard, I’ve laboured long", seems to have been his attitude.

Charles Carrigan

I was going to ask, do you think that Fred is right?

Simon Mitton

No, I do not think Fred is right.

Charles Carrigan

I really appreciated Professor Gingerich’s lecture. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about truth and persuasion but hadn’t really thought about them in those terms. What it comes down to in the end in the absence of data required to validate a theory (e.g., Copernicus’s heliocentric model of the solar system or Fred Hoyle’s steady-state theory of the cosmos) is that there really is a big element of persuasion that must be substituted for a lack of needed information if a theory is to gain acceptance. However, persuading someone that something is true is not the same as proving that a proposition actually is true. As a scientist, I believe in absolute truth as it applies to our understanding of the physical universe, but I also think that it is almost always very difficult or impossible to determine the exact truth owing to a lack of required information or data. That is, we cannot prove in a mathematical sense that most propositions about the physical universe or the laws to which it is subject are, in fact, true. In the vast majority of cases, we have to be satisfied with persuading ourselves and others that some statement about the nature of the universe is true.

As a Christian, I also believe in absolute moral and theological truths (e.g., truths about who God is, what He is like, and how He has chosen to relate to us through His Son, Jesus Christ) that are mostly revealed through the Bible. It is necessarily biblical revelation and not observation of what is happening around us that provides most of the basis for what Christians believe. I do not mean to say that Christians gain no information about God and biblical truths from observations of the world around them. Indeed, I believe that biblical revelation is and should be consistent with observations of nature, man and the universe in general. Our understanding of God should inform our understanding of the universe and vice versa. But I also believe that we can only begin to understand the personal nature of God through the Bible, which describes His attributes, His Trinitarian character and how we can expect Him to relate to us. However, truths about God are like scientific truths in that both are not readily susceptible to being proved in a mathematical sense, that is, with the highest possible degree of certainty. In this regard, faith is not just for those inclined to believe in God; it is implicit in any statement that we have been persuaded is true.

In regard to our initiating discussion of cosmological theories or models, especially ones that invoke more than the three observable dimensions and time, it seems that we are dealing with models represented by systems of defining equations that are grossly underdetermined. As a result, such models are also highly non-unique. This means that there are many other models that are likely to fit the data just as well as a cosmologist’s preferred model. I am concerned that even informed laymen may not realize this when a public pronouncement is made. (I have only singled out cosmology as that is the context of this particular discussion, but these comments really apply to any field that is subject to popularization.) To the extent that the public or even other scientists are persuaded to believe a particular theory, it may be for reasons that are not well connected to the scientific issues that the theory addresses. I wonder what Professor Gingerich’s thoughts are about the non-uniqueness issues associated with underdetermined models such as cosmological theories?

Owen Gingerich

Well, cosmology is a very good example of this kind of business of persuasion because in particular we hear of the multiverse theory. Some people dismiss it out of hand, saying this is metaphysics because there’s no way to get in touch with any of the rest of these multiple universes. They’re totally unobservable, and is that science? On the other hand, you have somebody like Martin Rees (who was at the lecture this afternoon), who feels that because the equations allow this to happen once, there’s nothing to say it can’t happen more than once. And if you have it happening many times, then that’s science if you’re using these equations to set it up. I thought at first there was perhaps a theist/atheist divide on this question, but I realize that’s not the case. There are atheists who are just as adamant against the multiverse/universe theory, so strangely enough it isn’t a divide between atheists and theists. But obviously it’s a matter of persuasion because, as you say, it’s just not that determined.

Alan Cook

This is a sort of metaphysical point, I think. There’s another way of looking at truth in science more as utility and I think it goes back to Boyle – I’m pretty sure it was Boyle who said that the mark of a good hypothesis theory is not simply that it fits in with what you know already, but that it predicts things that you don’t know at the moment. I suppose one of the great marks of the validity of Newton’s ideas on gravitation and celestial mechanics was that he did predict and explain things that people had hitherto thought entirely mysterious, like the figure of the Earth and the precession of the equinox and so forth, that people had supposed were quite disconnected from anything else. I think the same is true if one goes a bit later with the chemistry of Lavoisier, so I think a lot of attention should be paid to what Hooke said.

Of course there are fields of science in which that sort of validation is not open to you. Did the big bang occur? It would be very difficult to apply Boyle’s ideas to that. That is another thought which recurred time and time again at a time that Owen was talking about and more particularly with regard to corpuscular theory, which was quite popular in some ways, or alternatively, strongly condemned in others at that time.

I think it was Locke who said both of Newton’s gravitation and of his ideas on light and the corpuscular nature of light, he casts doubt, which sceptics have done from Greek times onwards, on whether you could say anything about the finer constitution of material things or anything else when all you could see were grosser, sensible effects. I think both of those issues which were very prominent in the 17th century, from Galileo onwards, are still with us today.

Owen Gingerich

I’ve given a lot of thought to this question of foresight and understanding. That is say, to what extent does a theory validate itself by predicting things. It’s very interesting to look at the case of general relativity where Einstein made an interesting understanding of a well-known phenomenon, namely the advance of perihelion of Mercury’s orbit, whereas he also made an interesting prediction and that was the bending of light around a gravitational object, or the bending of starlight around the sun. When this was found in the eclipse in 1919, Einstein essentially became an overnight celebrity, but if you look at the publications on general relativity in the 1920s, what was seen as the validating part was not the prediction of the bending of starlight but the interpretation of the advance of Perihelion. The reason was that people knew that was an anomaly for some decades and they beat their heads against the wall trying to understand it, whereas the bending of starlight was so novel that nobody had a chance to try to explain it by other means.

Alan Cook

That’s not entirely so, is it Owen? I thought that someone around 1750 or so had done a classical calculation in Newtonian terms. The point about Einstein’s general relativity prediction was that it was a different magnitude from classical by a factor of two or three – a factor of two, I think.

Owen Gingerich

A factor of two was very interesting because the first expedition to go out and test this was blocked by World War I where the experimenters were captured as enemy aliens. Then in the meantime Einstein found a numerical error and changed his prediction by a factor of two. It would have been very interesting if the observation had been made first and found to disagree and then Einstein had said "Whoops, there is a factor of 2 here in the calculation".

Alan Cook

There are histories of that happening in the history of science, too!

Brian Heap

What about those of you who are involved in the philosophy of education and how you teach this area which deals with persuasion rather than truth?

David Bridges

There are a number of things which interest me about this discussion. Part of my background is as an historian and I was entirely persuaded by the historical commentary and found that absolutely fascinating. I’ve also got a background in rather traditional epistemology and I think I was less convinced on that front.

The first remark is that I’m struck by the rather remarkable resemblance between what I hear some people saying about science and kind of postmodern literary theory. There are readings of the text which can be almost infinitely rich and proliferated, between which there is no sort of standpoint from which you can independently say this one is right and the other’s wrong. It’s quite refreshing to hear science presented in almost those kind of postmodern, literary terms but I really want to go back – there was a point made by a young man in the audience at the lecture theatre with which I had a lot of sympathy; it’s about this issue of persuasion which seems to me to be really a psychological concept rather than an epistemological one, and he was posing the question then – you know, what are you persuaded of about the theory and if it’s not something to do with the truth of the theory however you construe truth, what is it that you are persuading people to think about it.

There is also the related question how are you persuading people. In the long tradition of intellectual discourse people have marked a distinction between rhetoric and logic, between the arts of persuasion which may elicit and draw upon all sorts of emotional and irrelevant features of our psychology for the purposes of convincing us that something is when it may not be so at all. The grounds for belief, which you might say are the grounds which ought to require us to be persuaded but once you get into questions about why should we be persuaded, what are the sort of grounds on which we should be persuaded? You are then getting into issues of evidence of the care and thoroughness of the investigation of the relationship of the theory to something external to the theory that’s not purely self-contained, self-referential, and you start to move away from coherence into something like correspondence theories of truth as well. So it seems to me that there is a job of persuasion, there is a job of trying to get people to believe for good reason what you hold to be true, and on the basis of appropriate reasons, evidence and argument, but it’s not any kind of persuasion, it’s a persuasion which is rooted in some view of the appropriate epistemological grounds for belief within the domain in which you are operating. So I’m a bit suspicious of persuasion as a substitute.

Tim Russ

In the course of history different societies go in for mythopoesis, inventing a story to account for everything, and I suspect that this tendency belongs to the scientific community, the big bang theory and so on.

I sometimes say to people there’s more than one way to boil an egg. I think we must guard against mythopoesis and come down to the strange truth that our scientific community is able to make wonderful correlations and to verify them and to have very useful predictive power, and I think we need to be rather humble about the mythopoesis which tends to dominate that consciousness and to make the scientist feel competent to pronounce on other disciplines of thought. To clarify: poetry is making things and so mythopoesis is a tendency to make myths: every ancient society had a mythic basis to it and I suspect that because the scientific community is a community it has a tendency to make a myth. Science today has departed from Aristotelianism and is dealing with correlation. Persuasion is to do not with the area of scientific truth, it’s to do with the area of values: that is how do we act together, and that’s a different matter really from truth, because there are different options to be evaluated and one to be chosen.

Truth rests upon recognizing the virtually unconditioned and the virtually unconditioned is a conditioned truth, where the conditions are fulfilled. Some things are obviously true: I am, at the moment, quite conscious and I’m quite responsible for what I’m saying. So a correlation experimentally verified is true. I think that the awful truth for the scientific community is that they’ve got to humble themselves mightily and come down to the idea of correlation and stick with that and work hard with it.

Alan Cooke

I was wondering if I could infer from the fact that Tim knows that he’s conscious, or that he is thinking and therefore knows that he exists, that he’s also Descartes! We know in quantum mechanics that if two objects are indistinguishable, there’s just one of them. But there was one other rather flippant remark, but not entirely so, about persuasion and rhetoric. If there was ever an example of that it’s Galileo. Some people may know, I think it’s Il Sagitore but I’m not absolutely sure, but one of Galileo’s great works was and probably still is used in Italian schools as a model of rhetoric in the Italian language. That annoyed many of the people who were opposed to Galileo.

Derek Burke

And are you arguing, Timothy, that scientists never do anything more than correlate?

Tim Russ

I think they think of new possibilities and they find new and fruitful ones and they work forward. There are certainly other sorts of question: what is the pattern of cosmic history, why is there a universe? – but these lead to distinct subjects from physics and chemistry.

Derek Burke

In biology correlations are easy and causal relationships are very difficult because you can’t re-run and it’s the same problem as the big bang.

Tim Russ

You have to say what’s really wrong with modern science is that it’s tied up with a billiard ball mentality and actually the world has other sorts of causation and intelligibility. I suspect that we sort of think that everything that goes on has got to correspond with our imagination and that isn’t the case at all.

Bob White

May I enlarge on something that was said earlier, the notion that science is becoming very postmodernistic in its outlook. One of the features of postmodernism is that it maintains that there is no absolute truth anywhere: it’s what you make of what you see, and everything is relative. And that always amuses me, because the people who are expounding that sort of view are quite happy to climb on aeroplanes and fly to conferences to discuss postmodernism, whilst still maintaining the fact that there may not be any absolute truth behind the equations that were used to design the aeroplane so that it stayed in the sky.

I would like to ask Owen about the truth claims made by Christianity, since this is a Christians in Science meeting. Jesus said "I am the way, the truth and the life", and the whole of the Old Testament and the New Testament are predicated on the belief there are absolute truths, and that there is a creator God who exists outside, and independently of the material universe in which we live. In many ways much of the development of science has been predicated on the same belief, that some things are right and other things are wrong, that some things are true and other things are untrue, and working out which is which is how you make progress in science. So I would like to ask whether scientific truth is of the same nature, or kind as the religious truth of which the Bible speaks and, if so, what should we make of that? That’s a big question, sorry.

Owen Gingerich

Well, I would say that there is a kind of parallel here that I did not draw out explicitly in the lecture this afternoon, which is that if you look at science as marching ahead in part by persuasion and coherence, I would say that this is also true of one’s religious beliefs. You’re not in a position of being able to carry out an experiment or make a proof of the sort that Cardinal Bellarmine was looking for in the case of science.

Nevertheless one can build up a feeling of coherence and understanding of things making sense. I often lecture on other aspects of these questions and sceptics come all the time looking for proofs and are annoyed at me because I don’t give any proofs that they can try to shoot down. With me it is not a matter of doing proofs but just looking at a coherent structure of the universe. That is to say, it makes more sense to me to think of a universe that has purpose and intention behind it, but that is something that’s very difficult to prove.

On the other hand, if you have that as your philosophical framework, then all of these anthropic principle ideas become the evidence that you would take to say yes, the Universe has these remarkable aspects that make it extraordinarily congenial for the formation of intelligent life, that there is essentially something so wonderful about that, that it requires an explanation, but is not proof. I cannot convince a sceptic of that at all; he will simply say that well, the universe wouldn’t be like that, we wouldn’t be here, and that’s that. That’s not for me the satisfactory solution.

Tim Russ

Are those questions about purpose and intention scientific questions, do you think, or questions which give rise to other disciplines?

Owen Gingerich

No, I don’t see that that’s necessarily a scientific question or that that is how you would you go about framing a scientific answer to it.

Jeff Skopek

First, in response to earlier statements proposing that we should think about science and religion as pursuing different types of truth, I would like to suggest that this approach fails to account for the complexity of the processes out of which ideas of truth emerge. To conclude that science and religion pursue different types of truth, one must first assume that we can compare and contrast the two. To conclude that one can compare and contrast the two, one must fist assume that scientific and religious truths are external, non-mutable categories that have their own essential qualities. If we want to avoid relying on this simplistic assumption, and develop a richer comparison of science and religion, we should not begin by comparing the content and quality of their ideas of truth, but rather the manner in which these ideas have emerged over time. Only through an exploration of the functions of community, tradition, and authority within both scientific and religious communities can we develop complete images of their ideas of truth—images that will allow for a deeper understanding of the interface between science and religion.

Second, in response to Professor Gingerich’s suggestion that aesthetic simplicity and explanatory power are the two functional criteria in the judgment of a scientific theory, I would like to raise one point for further discussion. While I agree that these both play key functions, I do not think that one can reduce considerations of aesthetics and explanatory power into terms of common measurement. Because these methods of evaluation are incommensurable, one must either use the forms of evaluation independently or fall into a fragmented evaluation - both outcomes posing a problem for Professor Gingerich’s characterization of the nature of scientific persuasion.

Alan Cook

It seems to me in this sort of discussion, quite often one needs to bear in mind the comment that was made, I think by Wittgenstein that the meaning of a word is determined by the context in which it is used. We need to look, I think, much more carefully at what we mean by truth in science and what we mean by truth in religion by looking, as Wittgenstein would say, at the way we use these words.

Simon Mitton

So the truth in, say, the physical sciences could be dynamic because within any time there’s a paradigm and there are experiments. Presumably the experiments are aimed at showing that the truth is untrue?

Alan Cook

Presumably one would have to take into account such things as Popper’s falsification idea. On the other hand the fact that things actually work when you put aeroplanes together and so on, it’s in those contexts that we define what we mean by the truth in science.

Geoff Skopek

I think you would also draw your dynamic to the conception of truth not just in scientific but also in religious communities, truth, that’s sort of what I was getting at, looking at how authority and community interplay. I mean with Christianity and within Judaism you have what it means to be the word of God, something that changes over time, and that these are sorts of interesting ways that draw out the parallels between science and religion.

David Bridges

I am very attracted to that path but it leads into other kinds of treacheries which were if truth and the construction of truth and the meaning of truth depends on social context, then it’s also governed by the power structures in those different social contexts. You then get into the sociology of knowledge and the kind of ?Foucian examination of the way in which the structures of power within a particular social context actually govern what can count as truth and how truth is defined, so truth again slips out of the domain of epistemology in terms of ethics. Of course there are accounts both in science and religion about the way political structures shape what is taken to be truth at any particular time. It seems to me, one wants some thing to get hold of, to escape from, and you’re back into epistemology.

Brian Heap

But Andrew, in your world of electrons and vision, is this something difficult to grasp or is this something that you can discern as seeking to elucidate as truth?

Andrew Blake

I would like to give two reactions to what’s been said so far. First I think Bob White, although I know his comment about aeroplanes was slightly flippant, led us off in a particular direction.

I don’t think it is obvious that you have to believe that the equations governing the aeroplane are true in order to trust them. The thing that has been mentioned several times this evening is "predictive power", and that people value theories according to their predictive power. Perhaps if one expands that a little bit to "explanatory power" then I think there may be a common currency between scientific theories and theories that one might find in the Bible. What people value is having answers to certain questions that they find important. In one case, questions about the safety of their flight, in the other case questions about life, get answered in a satisfying and economical way.

The other thing that I wanted to mention was that you talked this afternoon, Owen, about Ockham’s Razor and it’s an interesting thing, isn’t it, that we all find the Ockham’s Razor principle persuasive. Where does it come from? Do we have to argue the principle, or are we content to accept it by mutual assent?

Actually what I do professionally is not so much concerned with electrons as with getting computers to learn things once the electrons are already behaving themselves inside the hardware, how then do you get computers to learn concepts? One of the very interesting developments from the last decade or so is that people have now made statistical theories that are amenable to computation. They are a fusion of ideas from statistics and ideas from neural network modelling of the brain, and it turns out that they operate the Ockham’s Razor principle in a natural way, and without having been explicitly programmed to do so. It seems then that you can lay down some quite general principles which, if you work them through consistently, lead to Ockham’s Razor without it being necessary to state that as an arguable principle, and I think that’s a very interesting emergent property of such theories.

Jeff Tallon

It’s a fundamental way in which our brains operate, isn’t it? We have a huge number of perceptions and impulses being received by our brain and, of course, unless it filters we have problems and people have serious psychological problem if they don’t have these filters. It’s a fundamental process that goes on in the brain that decides what’s relevant and important and what’s not important, and it forgets what’s unimportant.

Mary Sharpe

I’ve been trying to approach these questions of truth and persuasion through a number of disciplines. I practiced law for a number of years as a trial lawyer as you would call it, as an advocate in Scotland, and it’s certainly a thorny subject.

Persuasion appears to be more effective in courts than truth. It is due perhaps to the power of rhetoric over logic that was mentioned earlier. In my experience if the jury in a criminal trial doesn’t like the particular counsel or client then they will go against that person irrespective of the rationality of the facts or evidence before them. The personal authority of the individual plays a huge part in the power to persuade. The intention behind the use of that authority is key. People feel cheated, however, when the trust that is placed in that authority is used against the best interests of the community at large to promote the narrow interests of a few. That is noticeable inpolitics, in the business community and, it would appear, in religious institutions too.
In recent years the multinational agrifood company Monsanto lost much credibility for the debate on GM foods. The argument that GM foods would provide more food for the hungry in the developing world rang hollow when they promoted their GM terminator gene. By modifying nature’s ability to reproduce the grain so that it produces only one crop per seed meant that farmers in these poor countries would have to buy new seeds every year to produce a crop, to the advantage of a narrow few and detriment of a great many. If we are to love our neighbours as ourselves then our actions should reflect that intention.

The history of the early Christian Church makes for fascinating reading particularly in light of the discovery of ancient texts in the 1945 in Upper Egypt and the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947. All shed new light on the much wider range of spiritual ideas that were circulating in the 400 years from 100 BCE to the formation of the canon in the fourth century. The personal authority and persuasive power of the Roman Emperor Constantine was granted to the newly developed Christian Church as an institution as he tried to unite the Eastern and Western parts of the Roman Empire. It gave the Church Fathers the power to purge anything that did not support the nascent institution. In 367 AD a letter was sent out by Athanasius setting out which texts were to form the basis of Church doctrine. Everything else, including gospels based on the teachings of apostles such as Philip, Thomas and Mary Magdalene, were considered heretical. That may have robbed us for 1600 years of knowledge of some important parts of Christ’s teachings and of our Christian heritage.

I am very interested in the modern day application of science and theology to everyday problems. I used to work in Brussels at the European Commission in the Science Directorate, then came to Cambridge to do some postgraduate work in theology here at St Edmund’s. However in term of what to research, Plato said in his Dialogue The Symposium , "knowledge of love is what’s most useful to Mankind." I am interested that Sir John Templeton, our benefactor, would appear to agree. In his book "The Humble Approach" he focused on the need for science to look at the question of love. Where is love, how do we find it, how do we make it sustainable, what are the barriers to it? When I was at a talk in the Jewish Students’ Centre not so long ago, "Does Science leave room for the Soul", it was very interesting that the quantum physicist from Oxford University and a renowned professor psychology from Cambridge said scientists did not want to touch the subjects of love or the soul with a barge pole because they are not measurable.

Science has become the persuasive authority for almost all official action today, ‘if it can’t be measured, it isn’t valid’. That unwillingness to trust in a higher power may be in part due to the reduced credibility of the Church and its ability to solve problems of a more personal nature. But science is so focused on rationality and provability that the emotional dimension, because of the difficulty of measuring it, gets ignored. So many of our lower human impulses are driven by emotional factors based on fear and insecurity. If we’re going to really tackle society’s problems and improve life for everyone, we need to analyse the problems more widely. We should be willing to challenge some old views, even religious ones, that do not appear to work in practice. We need to look at a broader range of spiritual influences, such as those outlined in these ancient texts, and have the courage to do research into difficult areas of the mind. As the intellectuals in our society we have to disseminate knowledge and educate people about what makes us all tick to help give choices about how best to achieve our aims. Social control through religion and fear of the afterlife is no longer a viable option: we need help to become more Christ-like in this life.

When we look at the problems in society today, almost 50% of marriages are breaking down, 80% of our criminals have addictions, whether it’s drug addiction, alcohol addiction, or gambling, and obesity and tranquiliser use are on a steep curve upwards. Recently on the radio it was announced that the UK now has the highest level of personal debt per capita in Europe, with something like £5000 per household, excluding mortgages. The whole focus of the economy appears to be on consumerism, the instant gratification of our never-ending desires, anaesthetising any possible pain or unpleasantness, aided and abetted by science, technology and credit cards. Maybe we should be looking for behavioural solutions and not place the burden of finding the panacea, the magic pill to cure all ills, on the shoulders of our scientists.

To duck out of dealing with these hard issues and take the easy road to do scientific research in areas that are going to produce lots of money from technological applications is all very well and very nice for those scientists who are going to benefit from it, but society meantime is suffering. I hope, without being in any way offensive to scientists round the table, that the urgent need to help us all love our neighbours as ourselves might become a more important focus for scientific research in future, particularly among the faith-based scientists. I will certainly hope to endorse that in my own area of research, which is looking at the neurochemical and psychological effects of sexual love based on ideas set out in some of these Gnostic Christian gospels that were suppressed by the early Church but part nonetheless, it seems, of the teachings of Jesus. The ideas therein help free us from our passions. When we are balanced physically, mentally and emotionally, we are no longer slaves to our ego, cravings and desires and can channel our abundant energy towards healing ourselves and others.

Jeff Tallon

That’s not just a call to scientists, is it, that’s a call to all.

Tim Russ

William of Ockham - I love Ockham’s Razor but you really do have to be the master of the field before you use Ockham’s Razor. William of Ockham actually was a nominalist, responsible for setting Western Europe into scepticism so we must use it, but I find that when we think of truth there’s a wonderful tag in Latin that is "Ens et verum convertuntur" in other words when you reach a truth judgment and say "it is", you’re also actually also reaching a being judgment and you’re actually reaching what is the case quite beyond yourself. So the truth judgment is of extraordinary significance. Ockham, I think, dismissed this extraordinary power of our mental make up.

Someone said we all complain about our memory but we never complain about our judgment, so we are responsible for these truth judgments. The problem about truth judgment is your notion of being – you find throughout history that people have quite different notions of being. Parmenides thought it couldn’t change, and Heraclitus thought it had to change, and you couldn’t possibly say anything about anything except the overall structure of everything, the Logos. And so you’ve actually got to get an idea of being which allows permanence and change and includes whatever is. You may have many different universes out of touch with each other but they either are or are not, and if they are, then they are all part of one order of being. So the order of being is a great idea and it actually reaches out to include things like love and one of the glorious things which theologians did for the scientists was to produce the idea of intensity. They said that you can have zero love or a little love, or greater and greater and greater love and the physicists said "Good God, we can apply this to temperature".

Owen Gingerich

I have certainly appreciated the conversation. I always find the question and discussion periods the most interesting part because the other ideas I’ve already heard!

One thing I did want to say before the evening was over is that my family and I are former residents of St. Edmund’s House. We lived in one of the maisonettes for a term, so it’s a wonderful thing to be back here to see the great improvements, the landscaping, to go up in the tower to realize that this is the superior view of Cambridge. So thank you both for inviting me here, and thanks to all of you for coming and joining in the discussion.

Brian Heap

And although we didn’t actually plan it in this way, it was so appropriate that Professor Gingerich as a Professor of Harvard should have been giving this lecture in Emmanuel College, the home of its famous forbear.

Thank you very much indeed for stimulating so much interest in proof and persuasion. I couldn’t help but remember the view of a Scottish preacher who, when faced with the problem of evolution and how to handle it, prayed to God, "Lord, if it be true, let it not be widely known". So thank you very much indeed, Owen, and we hope you’ll come back again soon.

May we also raise our glasses to Sir John Templeton as we anticipate an announcement of this year’s Templeton prize.

Nicolay Belkov (contribution made after the meeting)

I was very impressed by the way the notion of truth has changed in my mind throughout the evening. In Russia, we have a saying "Do not believe your eyes!" if someone claims he or she has seen something that cannot exist. Yet, we, human beings, seem to trust our eyes very much.

It is more than that: we trust what we see on TV, what is written in the newspapers and sometimes even what the politicians say, let alone our own deliberations after several drinks -"in vino veritas". The interesting question for me, coming from a social sciences background, is how much of "consumed" information we actually get ourselves without external sources such as mass media. My guess is that the answer is 1% or so.

But at least we can be sure about the facts - they may be incomplete or presented in a biased way, but we can always deduce them from the information we receive. I thought it would be very different in the sciences, for all the physics, chemistry and astronomy textbooks I read during my secondary school years were very straightforward and gave formulas, proven and ready for use. Now the matter seems to be more complicated and we often accept something as being truth through someone else's persuasion or experience. In this aspect cosmology presents an extreme case, as you cannot check your assumptions about the past, while there is no way to see whether one's predictions are correct either, because those predictions are made for millions of years ahead. This extreme case also requires extremely well developed imagination: for me, it is almost impossible to imagine how space can be eternal because, if it ends at some point, what is beyond can also be called space.

Brief biographies of participants

Professor Owen Gingerich, Astronomy and History of Science, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, USA

Sir Brian Heap, FRS, Master, St Edmund’s College, Physiologist

Miss Jo Richardson, PhD student (cell biology), Emmanuel College, Wellcome Trust/Cancer Research UK Institute

Mr Babatunde Ayoola, PhD Student, Chemical Engineering, St Edmund’s College. Nationality: Nigerian

Mr Antonio Fernandes de Oliviera, LLM Student, Law, St Edmund’s College. Nationality: Portuguese

V Revd Canon Timothy Russ, Catholic Priest, Fellow Commoner, St Edmund’s College
Professor Derek Burke, formerly Vice Chancellor, Molecular Biologist, Honorary Fellow, St Edmund’s College

Miss Mary Sharpe, Advocate, Visiting Scholar Theology, formerly St Edmund’s College
Mr Jeff Skopek is a Fulbright Scholar studying the twentieth century life sciences as a graduate student in the Department of the History and Philosophy of Science,University of Cambridge.

Ms Li Ding, MPhil Student, Management Studies, St Edmund’s College. Nationality: Chinese

Mr Yi Shen, MPhil Student, Materials Modelling, St Edmund’s College. Nationality: Chinese

Professor Andrew Blake, FREng, Senior Researcher, Microsoft Research

Revd Dr Geoffrey Cook, Vice-Master, St Edmund’s College, Biochemist, University of Cambridge

Professor David Bridges, Centre of Applied Research in Education, University of East Anglia, Senior Member, St Edmund’s College

Dr Michael Hoskin, Emeritus Fellow, St Edmund’s College, History of Science

Ms Ulrika Hillemann, PhD Student, History, St Edmund’s College. Nationality: German
Sir Alan Cook, FRS, Former Master, Selwyn College, Emeritus Professor of Natural Philosophy, Cambridge

Dr Simon Mitton, Treasurer and Fellow of St Edmund’s College, Physicist, Biographer

Dr Charles Carrigan, Visiting Fellow, St Edmund’s College, Earth Scientist, Livermore Laboratory, California, USA

Professor Jeff Tallon, FRSNZ, Physicist, Victoria University, New Zealand

Professor Bob White, FRS, Professor of Geophysics, University of Cambridge

Mr Nikolay Belkov, MPhil Student, St Edmund’s College, International Studies. Nationality: Russian