A Discussion with Pupils at St Peter’s School, York on Open and Closed thinking, and Death

I was reminded last week of the wonderful and challenging experience of discussing with bright, energetic and thoughtful 17 and 18 year olds.  It’s also refreshing: they think of unexpected things, bring the emerging values of their generation into play, and best of all are deliciously unregarding of any ‘authority’ that, say, a public lecturer at their school might have in anyone else’s eyes by being, for example, the lecturer!

It was the first time I have had the pleasure and honour of giving a lecture at the school that has given our own children so much over the last few years (and with which we also share the street we live on). St. Peter’s have built up an enviable series of public lectures on all possible topics – well attended by people from all over the city and further afield.  My invitation came, not from the physics department on this occasion, but from politics (Mr. Ben Fuller). This was very pleasing – yes Faith and Wisdom in Science is of course about science, but it is motivated by the great need for a new way of framing and cherishing science politically and culturally in our society. To politics was right.  Not that we didn’t spend a little time ‘diving down’ the lengthscales of the world into the chaotic, Brownian motion dominated of vibrating molecules and self-ssembled structures of life….

Somewhere in mid flow talking about reconstructing a picture of the universe at different lengthscales.

Somewhere in mid flow talking about reconstructing a picture of the universe at different lengthscales.

But as always the best bits are always in discussion afterwards.  Some moving questions from the audience – including one from a physician.  He asked if the ‘Theology of Science’ I had been urging we think about – one that sees science  as our God-given task to heal our relationship with the world – might help loosten our knotty problem with death.  His concern was that death has become a pathology to be postponed or avoided at all costs among his patients (apart from, it seems, the community of nuns he looks after, who get very excited about it and almost envious of those of their sisters who get there first…).  We talked about the way that Wisdom includes a coming to terms with our finiteness and reconciling us to the physicality of the world, together with the hope of a renewed one.  All questions but one were open, explorative, pushing us all further than the material of the talk – just what the Book of Job does!  The only closed-minded and convergent question was: “Did I believe in the virgin birth (of Jesus)?”

The question of closed and open mindedness was to be the topic of half an hour afterwards with a group of senior pupils who had kindly been helping steward the evening.  Surely Science was all about keeping an open mind, changing it in the case of evidence, reaching a belief after all the finding out?

Senior pupils (and others) gather round for a serious debate

Senior pupils (and others) gather round for a serious debate

Surely Religion knows what it wants to believe beforehand, then argues towards it, whatever the evidence? That last description made me think of some very poor science I have come across.  We talked about that experience, and worked our way to seeing that a fear of challenge to our preconceived ideas is a common human attribute, and that in all things we grow when we are open to the new.  We also recognised that all journeys need starting points.  Scientists make hypotheses – sometimes wild ideas that they would like very much to be true, and without which a scientific idea never gets started.  But the vital ability is to know when you were wrong and change your mind.  An openness to the unanswered question becomes a way to travel hopefully.  So it is with Christianity too. The staggering unanswered questions about nature in the Book of Job, as well as the hundreds of others all through the Bible, give to any alert reader the strong impression that openness to questions is at the heart of its worldview and message.  Some of those questions take the whole human story to answer.

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