My Week at the Faraday Institute

So I am back and I’ve finally stopped myself staring into space like a gormless sheep in a catatonic trance. I have managed to write something! Most of my summer holiday so far has consisted of nothing (unless you count reading as something which not many people do these days). Due to my lack of a job and my unwillingness to find one, I have been left with no choice but to beg for money by desperately making disagreeable noises on my saxophone on the crime-ridden streets of Southport.

To my surprise, in mid July the gods smiled upon me because three weeks ago I was fortunate enough to be given a place on an annual summer course held by the Faraday Institute for Religion and Science. The Faraday Institute is an academic research enterprise based in Cambridge at St Edmund’s College who explore issues concerning the relationship between science and faith. This is done through scholarly research and publications, short term courses, lectures, seminars and also work through the media. Members consist of eminent and world respected experts in various backgrounds including scientists, philosophers, historians and theologians. This is what I call a summer holiday!

Their website can be found at – http://www.st-edmunds.cam.ac.uk/faraday/index.php. On it, various papers and recorded talks/lectures can be accessed which I highly recommend.

St Edmunds College

The course I attended in July was entitled: Science and Faith: Past and Present Perspectives. Each day was centered on a particular area within the sciences such as history, cosmology, biology, the brain and ethics, so many different topics were covered. On each topic, four different talks by various speakers were given which were then followed by Q and A sessions and a panel discussion at the end of each day. Personally the discussion times were the most intriguing because anybody was free to ask any question on the relevant topics and the speakers would respond in turn. In the panel discussions, all the speakers came together and further questions could be asked and expanded upon.

The 45 delegates on the course were from astonishingly diverse backgrounds and many had travelled half way around the world to attend. This came as a surprise to me because I had no idea how well known the institute is. People had come from the USA, Spain, Portugal, India, France, Romania, Nigeria, Australia, The Netherlands, Slovakia, Preston (me) and several other countries. We were all given badges to wear during the course stating our names and where we were from. Throughout the week I had the inconvenience of trying to conceal my badge because it said ‘Preston’ on it and felt guilty that I hadn’t come from the other side of the planet to be there. Many times I found myself telling new acquaintances (who hadn’t the slightest idea where Preston is) “it’s not a very nice place” or “Don’t bother going there!”. For anyone who has been to Preston more than once, I think you would agree that it isn’t the most pleasant of places.

Most of the people on the course were studying or had occupations within the sciences, theology and philosophy and others, like me, were just interested. I’ll admit I was slightly apprehensive before attending the course as I thought I’d be the only young person there. Fortunately there were a good handful of students and post graduates there so I didn’t feel like a complete fool. Overall the atmosphere was extremely friendly and I got to know some interesting characters over the course of the week. I even made some friends. It was also a huge privilege to be in such distinguished company and I was fortunate to meet some very well known and respected persons.

Lecture on religious experience and brain imaging.

Some of the speakers included:

John Polkinghorne – John worked in theoretical elementary particle physics for 25 years and was professor of mathematical physics at Cambridge university. He eventually left his academic post to become ordained in the Anglican church and has written something like 27 books on the relationship between science and christianity. At the course he did a talk on anthropic fine-tuning which was fascinating and I managed to chat to him afterwards. He has an aura of royalty but is soberingly modest and his mind is extremely agile for his age (80). In a previous post on this blog I wrote a response to a scurrilous review of John’s recent book Questions of Truth, written by the odious humanist philosopher A C Grayling. John was grateful for this!

Ernan MacMullin – A professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame and also has degrees in theology, physics and a PH.D. in philosophy of science. He is an author of 14 books and over 200 articles and is an expert on the life of Galileo. Ernan did a talk on the theology of Augustine and its relationship to Darwin. He seemed to know more about everything than anyone else on the course and always asked the most difficult and obscure questions.  At one point he stumped a panel of physicists which is an amusing spectacle indeed. An interesting thing I found out from him was that he used to be Alvin Plantinga’s boss!

Simon Conway Morris – A paleontologist widely known for his careful study of the Burgess Shale fossils, the Cambrian explosion and his work on evolutionary convergence. Simon is also author of several celebrated books and is very prominent in the dialogue between science and faith. He put on a highly informative and entertaining talk on evolutionary convergence. Yes…entertaining!

Jennifer WisemanAn Astronomer, author and speaker and also chief of the laboratory for exoplanets and Stellar Astrophysics at NASA. She did a talk on habitable exoplanets (planets outside our solar system) and its implications for human significance. During some free time I ended up going punting with her and some other people on the course, on the river Cam. Punting with someone from NASA is not a familiar experience.

Ernest Lucas – Previously a biochemist who studied at Oxford University, Ernest is a biblical scholar and is a tutor at Bristol Baptist College and Bristol University. He presented a talk on the creation narratives in Genesis 1-3 which I found to be very helpful in thinking about the opposing views of biblical interpretation. I purchased one of his books entitled: Can we believe Genesis today?, which I intend to read soon.

Alasdair Coles – Alasdair is a neurologist in Cambridge whose primary interests are immunology, treatment of multiple sclerosis and religious experience. He did a talk on brain imaging and religious experience. This focussed on recent research done in the area and reductionist views of looking at the brain such as the so called ‘God spot’ (there isn’t one).

Elaine Howard Ecklund – She is assistant professor of sociology at Rice University and particularly interested in the religious beliefs of scientists and their attitudes towards religion in general. She has conducted the most extensive survey to date on the beliefs/lack of beliefs of scientists and almost 1700 scientists took part that were from leading universities. Most of the research was done in the US but with people from different nationalities and currently more work is being conducted in other countries. The results are particularly fascinating and is something that I aim to write about another time.

Mmmm books!

These were just some of the speakers at the course and every one of them were immensely thought provoking. Throughout the week there were also various city tours to choose from as part of the course and so I went for the ‘Darwin tour’ which took us around his college and even to his very own study/bedroom. Apparently his room is normally occupied by students when tours aren’t on (imagine that…having student accommodation that was previously occupied by Charles Darwin!). Overall my accommodation was great, the food agreeable and Cambridge is a city, unlike Preston, that is extremely pleasing to the eyes. At the end of the week there was a gala meal in the proper tradition of the college (gongs, gowns, Latin prayers and all that), and joined the students of St Edmund’s. I unexpectedly ended up sitting next to the Dean so was on my best behaviour but he turned out to be a pleasant chap. A second trip is in order next summer I think. Upon returning home from Cambridge with a ton of notes (which I can only just make sense of), I have endless things to ponder upon and hopefully these things can be of use and interest to other people as well as to myself. A lot of the information I picked up over the week will be put to use in subsequent writings.

Back to a summer of nothingness…

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