Friends General Conference

Nurturing faith and Quaker practice

A Virtuous Instinct for Truth

Workshop Number: 
Robert Pennock
Who may register?: 
Open to All
Experiential Activities: 
half gathering attenders welcome
First half (Monday-Wednesday)

Friends’ emphasis on knowing “by experiment” developed hand in hand with the Scientific Revolution. Through the lives of Quaker scientists from Dalton to Eddington, we’ll compare Quaker testimonies with scientific virtues.  To speak truth to power when ”alternative facts” deny climate change and other scientific findings, we need both.

Workshop Description

A workshop especially for Quaker scientists and others interested in exploring the deep historical and philosophical connections between Quakerism and science.  The goal is to see science not simply as a body of facts, but as a practice that is structured by values, and to consider the significance of such values for public policy and social action.  The efficacy of speaking truth to power requires an appreciation that truth is more fundamental than power.  We’ll look at how science, with its aim of discovering truths about the natural world, helps make this possible.

Topics include:
- Early Quakers’ influence on the development of science.
- Quaker and scientific rejection of authority in favor of knowledge “by experiment.”
- Curiosity, truth-seeking, and attentiveness as basic scientific virtues.
- Liberty, Equality, Reality: The significance of truth for social justice in an era of science denialism (e.g. evolution & climate change).
- Integrity: Integrating and acting on our values.

Each day in the workshop, we will focus on one or two scientific virtues, from truth and curiosity to attentiveness, skepticism, and so on, considering them in relation to Quaker testimonies. At least half of each day will be devoted to discussion of material from the readings, from a national survey of the ethical values of exemplary scientists, and from short lectures about the lives of Quaker scientists whose work and lives exemplified these values. There will also be one active exercise each day that involves practicing some scientific virtue.  In worship-sharing, participants will reflect on these issues in relation to their own experiences in science.

Reading: If it appears in time for the Gathering, participants should read my book on science and virtue—Robert T. Pennock, An Instinct for Truth—to be published by the MIT Press.

Leader Experience

I ran an earlier version of this workshop at the 1996 Gathering in Hamilton.  Last year I led a session about this for an Adult Religious Education session at Red Cedar Friends Meeting.  As a university professor, I regularly lead workshops on this topic for scientists.