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The "Stalin Point": A.C. Grayling Replies

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Philosopher A.C. Grayling has replied to my recent post about his letter to the Aristotelian Society in which he demanded that they withdraw sponsorship of the Metaphysics of the Trinity conference at Oxford.

Mr. Grayling wrote:

Dear Mr. Egnor,

I write in connection with your article "An Open Letter to A. C. Grayling," to correct the errors it contains. I wrote to the Aristotelian Society, of which I was once the Hon. Secretary (that is, the administrator), to say that I did not think it appropriate for the Society to provide a grant for a conference on the concept of the "Trinity," a specifically Christian theological concept (which not all Christians anyway accept). That was the full content of my letter to the Aristotelian Society. Therefore: I did not ask for the conference to be cancelled, and the conference is not about quantum entanglement. As to the Templeton Foundation: it is perfectly free to spend its large resources on promoting religion but I strongly object to its baneful and deliberate efforts at muddling religion with science; the only interesting scientific relation to religion is the sociological, psychological, and psychiatric explanation of why anyone still believes the ancient fairy tales.


Anthony Grayling

This is my response:

Dear Mr. Grayling,

I'm grateful to you for your clarification. You are correct to point out that in your letter you only demanded cancellation of the Aristotelian Society's sponsorship of the Trinity conference. You did not demand cancellation of the Templeton Foundation's sponsorship.

That said, your disdain for the Templeton Foundation's work is clear, and it is not hard to draw the conclusion that you would be quite happy to see the Trinity conference cancelled. One has the impression that your failure to demand of the Templeton Foundation the withdrawal of sponsorship that you demanded of the Aristotelian Society was due to a lack of cache with Templeton, not to a lack of animus toward the conference.

On the application of psychiatry to theological disputes ("...psychiatric explanation of why anyone still believes the ancient fairy tales"), I would urge caution. Perhaps a case can be made that the belief in a God invisible to the senses has echoes in psychosis. And perhaps a case can be made that denial of purpose and intelligent agency in nature has echoes in autism. Psychiatry is a flexible tool, best left in the sheath.

Your animus toward metaphysical investigation of quantum entanglement using insight gained by philosophical contemplation of the Trinity is perplexing. You wrote to the Society:

I should not, I hope, have to explain to fellow-philosophers in any detail why, given the deep disparity between the assumptions, methods, aims, and principles of religious ideologies, on the one hand, and those of responsible intellectual enquiry in the sciences and philosophy, on the other hand, that the two domains should be kept as separate as we keep astrology and astronomy -- this comparison is acutely apt... the Society has made a mistake in supporting a partisan religious conference, and I hope the sum offered can be recovered and put to the proper use to which the Society's resources are pledged.

The philosophical issues raised at the conference -- "Proceeding and Filioque," "Being of One Substance," "Linguistics and the Trinity," "Divine Persons as Qua-Relations" -- are of great relevance to quantum entanglement. As philosophers and theologians from the Ante-Nicene fathers to Augustine, Boethius, Aquinas, and the scholastics and moderns such as Barth and Geach have recognized, the Trinity is the paradigmatic entanglement. The most profound philosophical investigation of the paradox of distinction in one being has been in the commentary on the Trinity. Whether such investigation is an inquiry into the nature of God or an inquiry into fairy tales, it offers a rich trove of metaphysical methodology to address issues in quantum entanglement. Entanglement seems to be a manifestation in the subatomic world of just the issues raised by the Trinity -- entangled particles act in some ways as a single particle, yet in other ways as more than one particle. Is it possible for one being to be more than one by mode, for example, and not by ontology? Are two subatomic particles entangled because their separation in space is just an accident of relation, not a substantial change?

Such metaphysical reflection has a venerable place in the philosophy of science. The work of the fathers of modern science -- from Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, and Newton through Bohr, Einstein, Heisenberg, and Schrodinger -- is replete with metaphysical and theological reflection. Heisenberg wrote of the insight he gained from Aristotle's hylomorphism and doctrine of act and potency (the foundation for the Prime Mover argument) in his formulation of the concept of the collapse of the quantum waveform, and others have noted that the T (time)-symmetry of the laws of nature (with the exception of the second law of thermodynamics) dovetails nicely with Aristotelian teleology, which of course is the basis for Aquinas' Fifth Way.

Metaphysics, philosophy of science, and theology have a rich history of consilience.

Now you may or may not have an interest in these matters, and you may or may not be of the opinion that these avenues of inquiry will bear fruit. But the Trinity conference is not a tent revival with snakes. It is a serious philosophical conclave that employs the methods (not necessarily the conclusions) of metaphysical investigation of the Trinity to gain insight into the ontological basis for the quantum world. It is in the finest tradition of philosophical work, and I complement the organizers of the Trinity conference for their keen recognition that the philosophical framework for investigation of the Trinity -- a framework developed by the best minds of the West over two millennia -- may be applied to an analogous and quite intractable ontological puzzle in the philosophy of science. It is just this sort of rich collaborative inquiry that has marked the best work of the Aristotelian Society for the past century.

Such work is evident in the Aristotelian Society's Online Conference from April 12 to 18, 2013, titled "Truth and God," which featured a superb discussion between Thomist Peter Geach and agnostic Graham Oppy. I am unaware of any criticism you have voiced about this conference, which addresses theology in a much more explicit manner than a metaphysical investigation of oneness and relation in quantum mechanics.

Your silence on the Society's 2013 conference on "Truth and God" makes your letter to the Society demanding the withdrawal of support for the "Metaphysics of the Trinity" conference even more difficult to understand.

Then there is your perplexing assertion that an academic venue in which science or philosophy is discussed is no place for a conference sponsored by a "partisan" religious organization. One would presume that all religious organizations are "partisan" in that they are disposed to their own belief, whether Catholic or Jewish or Quaker or atheist. In that sense, of course, nearly all of the great universities in the West were founded by religious groups for quite partisan purposes, and theological inquiry has been a cornerstone of Western universities for a thousand years. Oxford was for centuries a training school for priests and theologians. Your notion that a "partisan" religious conference has no place in a British university rings strange in the halls of Corpus Christi College (the venue for the Metaphysics of the Trinity Conference), just as it would ring strange in Trinity College, Jesus College, Blackfriars, or the twenty or so colleges at Oxford named for their theological missions.

The choice of an academic venue for a partisan religious conference is ordinary. Take for example, the National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Students who, in collaboration with the Warwick Atheists, Secularists and Humanists, held their annual general meeting at the University of Warwick in Coventry this past July. It was no doubt a fine meeting, partisan and academic though it was.

One presentation at the conference is of particular interest:

We are delighted to announce that we will be receiving a talk by professor A.C. Grayling titled: "The Stalin Objection: Answering the Stalin Point"...

Some partisan religious conferences in academic venues are more equal than others. I respectfully suggest that a particularly effective way to answer the "Stalin point" is to forswear the urge to silence others, and to show a decent respect for academic and religious freedom for all.


Michael Egnor

Image: Entrance of Corpus Christi College, Oxford University, by Nigel Cox [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.