This week, I had the rewarding experience of taking part in a Wilton Park meeting examining three very different world-views: science, philosophy and theology. Wilton Park describes itself as a forum for analysing and advancing the agenda on global policy challenges, and over the years it has developed an enviable reputation for delivering authoritative reports drawn from bringing international experts together under the same roof for two days to discuss issues of topical relevance.
Participation is by invitation and there are no observers: everyone is there because they have something to bring to the discussion. Wilton Park reports always have their finger on the zeitgeist, appropriately, perhaps, for an institution born of Winston Churchill’s vision for reconciliation and dialogue in post-war Europe.
When I learned that Wilton Park was running a series of meetings examining the role of religion in modern society, and that it was looking at the possibility of holding an event in Switzerland, I saw an opportunity. At face value, faith and the scientific method are fundamentally incompatible, yet more scientists than theologians have won the Templeton Prize in the 40 years since it was established and many working scientists are also religious, reconciling very different ways of seeing the world in their own minds.
So we worked with Wilton Park to design a meeting that could examine the fundamental question of whether a common linguistic framework could be found, allowing a meaningful conversation to begin between scientists, philosophers and theologians. I rapidly discovered that the task would not be easy. Even apparently simple concepts, such as the meaning of the words ‘how’ and ‘why’, can be interpreted differently. Nevertheless, the meeting was stimulating, and in my opinion its conclusions will be extremely valuable for science and for human development. Although religion is a very personal matter, there is no denying that a large fraction of the world’s population describes itself as religious. It is my firm belief that whatever we as scientists may think, it is our moral duty to engage in dialogue. To that end, although I do not envy the rapporteur’s task, I am looking forward to the Wilton Park report, which should be available in about a month, and to the accompanying e-book to follow later.