Science, philosophy and theology: agents of peace making?

This time last week somewhere in Switzerland within a castle on top of a hill, a group of philosophers, scientists and theologians were wrestling with the language of logic and the science of the Big Bang. Some were atheist, others agnostic; and amongst the religiously inclined there were representations of many world faiths, including Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism and Taoism. As you might imagine, we were not short of material to discuss.

We had quickly become entrenched in semantics and definitions; this was neither a surprise nor a problem. Without a clear idea of what words mean, especially to those with whom you are trying to have a conversation, no meaningful dialogue can happen. For example, unless you know something about quantum mechanics, you probably won’t get very far using the word ‘particle’ with a physicist. Or using the word ‘fall’ with a theologian might become problematic if you think it simply means something that you should avoid doing down the stairs. And you should definitely not attempt to talk to a four year old about TV, unless you know what he means when he uses the word ‘Iggle Piggle’. Language matters, and many hours were well spent at the conference discussing what scientists, theologians and philosophers mean when they use the word ‘logic’.

But we had reached an impasse. And, for this junior conference attendee, boredom and frustration had begun to set in; we seemed to be going around in circles, toeing the borders of our areas of comfort and expertise, and not getting any further.

Then something strange happened; a frission of excitement ruffled through the room. First, a philosopher broke rank admitting that his strong atheism is partly due to parental upbringing. And then someone talked about non-traditional forms of logic, where belief and the influence of the moral good come into play in some forms of logic. It doesn’t sound like much, but it profoundly changed the direction of conversations. And it happened in a session where we had to consider ‘the other’ and communication not only with across disciplines but to another human being.

Defences were let down. We named fears and deeper processes that were going on in these discussions. We gave a little room to our personal stories, and why as humans we defend certain ways of thinking. By admitting that our logic systems are personal, we made room for a little humility and acknowledgment that we make choices about how we think, whether theist or atheist.

It might be called an epistemic humility but this is just a fancy way of saying that no one likes a smart a***. Fancy or profane, this is a truth that is at the heart of good communication and wisdom seeking. From heads of state coming together to sort out terrorism, to married couples arguing over who should unload the dishwasher next, we need to be aware that the decisions we make about how we think might not be universal and by attempting to understand the ‘other’ then real progress might be made.

We were there to discuss the Big Bang, an area of science which is at the edge of knowledge. And on that hill, human beings (Jew, Christian, Jain, Muslim, Agnostic, Atheist and Hindu)  met and thought deeply about the existence of the universe, the science which describes it and whether it might have any deeper meaning. For me, the important stuff happened not in the semantics or technicalities of the discussion, but when we considered what it meant to communicate with another human being. Then, we had progress, whatever that might mean. And the agent for this was science – human pursuit of knowledge about the world. It is a small, but not, I hope, insignificant contribution to reconciliation, in a world that so desperately needs a little peace.