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An Open Letter to A.C. Grayling


Atheist philosopher A.C. Grayling has written a letter to the Aristotelian Society at Oxford demanding that the Society cancel a conference planned for March titled: "The Metaphysics of the Trinity: New Directions." The conference, which features leading philosophers such as Richard Swinburne and Rob Koons, is part of a Templeton Foundation project "The Metaphysics of Entanglement," which is the exploration of the philosophical implications of quantum entanglement. This is a question at the heart of quantum physics, and it continues the debate started by Bohr and Einstein at the dawn of the 20th century.

Grayling will have no part of it. It's not that he refuses to attend -- he demands that the conference not take place.

Grayling, an alumnus, ironically, of St. Mary Magdalen College at Oxford, believes that philosophical inquiry from a religious perspective is irrelevant to the educational mission at Oxford. One wonders how alumni of several of Oxford's other fine colleges -- Corpus Christi College (the venue for the conference), All Soul's College, Blackfriars, Christ Church, Jesus College, St. Anne's College, St. Anthony's College, St. Benet's Hall, St. Catherine's College, St. Cross College, St. Hilda's College, St. Hugh's College, St. John's College, St. Peter's College, St. Stephen's House, and Trinity College -- feel about the relevance of the philosophy of the Trinity to the metaphysical implications of quantum entanglement.

One doubts that Grayling's missive will shut down the conference -- Oxford has had plenty of experience with cranks and is unlikely to create a safe space for this one -- but a decent respect for academic discourse calls for a reply to Grayling's epistle.

Dear Dr. Grayling:

I note with sadness your letter to the organizers of "The Metaphysics of the Trinity: New Directions." Remarkably, you demand that the conference be cancelled. As best I can discern, your reason for demanding the cancellation is that you don't like theology and you don't like metaphysics when it deals with theological questions.

If your attendance at the conference were mandatory, I would share your outrage.

Of course your attendance is not mandatory, so you are at no risk of involuntary metaphysical inquiry. Your demand for the cancellation of a conference because the topic is not your cup of tea seems a bit -- oh I don't want to use the word for it, because it denotes a certain intolerance.

Perhaps you want your pre-approval of conferences to be the new norm at Oxford -- "Announcement: An Oxford Conference on [Fill in the Blank] -- Pending Approval by A.C. Grayling."

It could get cumbersome. Oxford conferences would have to shut down when you're on sabbatical (although you could stay in touch by email), and you might be able to approve ideologically compliant conclaves before you leave.

So let's say that you just don't want to go to the Trinity conference. I understand. Why would you -- a Bright -- want to be in a room where a bunch of Aristotelians and Thomists and serious philosophers and physicists of all stripes could ask you questions? First Cause, Necessary Being, philosophy of science, teleology, quantum entanglement, aargh! You're an atheist, not a masochist!

But all is not lost. Organize a conference of your own -- a sure protection from all those theistic microagressions. It could be about atheist metaphysics, except that title is a bit insipid. So, contra "The Metaphysics of the Trinity," here's a suggestion for the title of your atheist Oxford conference: "The Metaphysics of Nullity: How Nothing Happened and Then Nothing Made Everything for No Reason."

It could be a part of a much bigger atheist project: "The Metaphysics of Entanglement from an Atheist Perspective: Why Look for a Reason When There Are No Reasons?"

No doubt you'd get a big crowd. Even in Oxford, there are plenty of folks who wouldn't know a Prime Mover from a prime rib. You could pack the conference with the New Atheist vanguard. Imagine a room full of Brights tackling the metaphysical implications of Nothing!

There could be some great speakers, and the topics write themselves:

  • "Why Quantum Mechanics Is Nothing," by Lawrence Krauss

  • "You Don't Have Free Will, Except When You Dent My Car," by Jerry Coyne

  • "How Much Longer Do I Have to Do This Book Tour?" by Richard Dawkins

  • "The Friendly Atheist, and Why We Need the Modifier," by Hement Mehta

  • "Nature Red in Tooth and Claw -- Natural Selection in Your Comments Section," by P.Z. Myers

  • "Why All Belief Is Evolved Natural Phenomena, Except Atheism," by Daniel Dennett

  • "Don't Worry -- You're Not the People Who Should Be Killed for Thinking the Wrong Thing," by Sam Harris

  • "I Have a Skeptical Brain and You Don't," by Steven Novella

  • "'Put Your Hand Down, Johnny': When Asking Questions About Science Is Unconstitutional," by Josh Rosenau

  • "Another Reason to Doubt the Relevance of Philosophy -- Except My Philosophy," by Jeffrey Shallit

  • "What Am I Doing in This Room with These People?" by Michael Ruse.

You yourself could give the keynote address -- "Shut Up and Cancel Your Conference!" -- about atheist engagement with religious perspectives. Perhaps you could organize breakout sessions on the unique contributions of atheism to religious freedom in the 20th century. Your discomfort with free expression has lavish precedent.

Better yet, do try to go to the Trinity conference. You might learn something about metaphysics. The Trinity is perplexing, for sure -- How can a Mind be more than one person? -- but it's worth pondering.

There'll be some pretty smart people there, and they'd love to have you join the discussion. They want to hear what you have to say -- they're kind of old-fashioned that way.

Best regards,

Mike Egnor

Image: A.C. Graying, by Ian Scott (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.