Oral history of British science

Wilks, Yorick (1 of 1).  Science and Religion: Exploring the Spectrum

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  • Subjects

    Science and Religion

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  • Interviewees

    Wilks, Yorick, 1939- (speaker, male)

  • Interviewers

    Merchant, Paul (speaker, male)

  • Abstract

    Part 1: [2nd August 2016] Yorick Wilks born in London on 27th October 1939. Comments on parents' work during World War Two [WW2]; own evacuation to Torquay; death of father (at own age of 11). Brief story linking evacuation, grammar school education and University of Cambridge [UOC] [1959-1962]; decision to read mathematics rather than physics as planned; switch to reading philosophy after first year. [1:33] Comments on own tutor for metaphysical and ethical philosophy at Pembroke College: Margaret Masterman [MM] [then Director of Research at Cambridge Language Research Unit [CLRU] [1955-1970] and leading member of the Epiphany Philosophers [EP] [1950-2010] ]; MM's view of importance of metaphysics; own degree result; extent to which MM regarded work on computers and language in CLRU and work on metaphysics as allied; MM's philosophical training under Ludwig Wittgenstein [LW] (with story of MM being thrown out of these classes because she was female and - in LW's view - unattractive); own employment in CLRU following degree (in 1962) working on metaphysics using computers as "language machines". [4:37] Further comments on MM's view of importance of metaphysics (related to her training under LW), in opposition to arguments of logical positivists that metaphysics could be shown to be meaningless because it failed to obey the "logical syntax of language" (after Rudolf Carnap); LW's view that metaphysics was a legitimate 'language game'. [7:38] Description of CLRU (20 Millington Road, Cambridge) in former Buddhist museum ('Adie's Museum'). Comments on funding of CLRU's work on machine translation by US defence grants. [10:58] Comments on post WW2 history of machine translation (translation from one language to another by computer); recent successes involving statistical analysis; own and MM's pursuit of way of rendering language using computers that captured meaning without attention to logic. [14:17] Comments on overlapping membership of CLRU and the Epiphany Philosophers [EP], including opposition of certain members of CLRU (mentions Roger Needham and Karen Spärck Jones). Description of concealed chapel on first floor of CLRU, which (before own experience of CLRU) had been used by MM for services twice a day. Comments on character of MM. [18:21] Further comments on MM's "Fabian-Bloomsbury background". Mentions MM's meeting with Virginia Woolf; MM's novels (including 'Death of a Friend' [1938]); MM's work in theatre in Brighton (referred to by herself as her "lesbian phase"); MM's tendency to decorate doors of her home; MM's "upper-class contempt for bourgeois life". [21:23] Comments on MM and her husband Richard Braithwaite's [RB] home on 11 Millington Road, Cambridge, including division of domestic work between the couple, au pair, caravans in garden (one occupied by physicist Ted Bastin, the other by MM's mentally ill sister Dorothy Masterman [DM]). Story of piles of discarded toast made by DM. Detailed comments on aspects of hysteria and instability in MM's own religious sensibility, with story of her tendency to introduce tension into meetings of EP. [26:24] Comments on own reasons for joining EP's, including comments on lack of churchgoing in childhood, lifelong religious relief, longstanding attraction to city churches, influence on self of religious belief and churchgoing of foster parents (from own age 11), involvement in foster father's Bible class 'Crusaders', visit to see Billy Graham preach in London, evangelical weekends, enjoyment of singing, membership of choir of church in Torquay before UOC, baptism and confirmation there, year in London between school and UOC [1958-1959], regular chapel attendance/singing at UOC. Comments on greater tendency for undergraduates at UOC to be religiously observant in the late 1950s, than at present. Mentions saying of grace before meals. Comments on involvement in Student Christian Movement [SCM] (not CICCU), leftwing politics and theatre at UOC. [37:45] Further description of Braithwaite's home at 11 Millington Road, including attitude to food and cooking, furniture, decoration, MM's room (with comments on her tendency to sit on the floor to write in "art school" hand, her diagrams including "graph theory of the Trinity", her playing of patience), top floor room occupied by philosopher Dorothy Emmet [DE], founding editor of EP journal 'Theoria to Theory'. Comments on character and work of DE; lack of emotional/physical closeness in relations with DE (and RB); view of RB, MM, DE and TB as principal members of EP (also mentions "sub-principal" Joan Miller, an Inspector of Factories). [51:03] Brief description of chapel in CLRU. Mentions first EP meetings at 11 Millington Road; EP meeting house built [in grounds of convent] on Marion Close; quarterly meetings in windmill at Burnham Overy Staithe, Norfolk; occasional meetings in a Rudolf Steiner school. [54:44] Story of involvement in building Marion Close building on strip of land bought from convent. Description of this building referred to as 'Marion Close' [MR], including space for "Ted's [TB] workshop" in which meetings were held, smaller space "Margaret's retreat room". Comments on/discussion of the meetings, including level and nature of discussion, often chaired by DE; character of MM's papers in philosophical journals; MM's view of women in the church and in religion more generally; MM's career outside academic philosophy. [1:12:58] Story of EP meetings in windmill at Burnham Overy Staithe, Norfolk (mentions its owner [until 1958, the architect Henry 'Hugh'] Hughes). Comments on other active EP members: Frederick Parker-Rhodes [FPR], Damaris Parker-Rhodes [DPR], Joan Miller; relations between FPR, DPR and MM. Comments on EP discussion of TB's theory of quantum physics, supported by work of FPR and Clive [Kilmister]. Description of TB's theory of quanta as cybernetic entities (self organising systems), including comments on TB's computer programs run on UOC computer and understanding of TB's work in relation to more recent field of 'quantum information theory'. Mentions book published by TB and David Bohm 'Quantum Theory and Beyond' [1971]. Brief comments on character of JM. Mentions service as Vice President of EP. [1:27:00] Story of particular dinner at the windmill illustrating RB's care not to waste food. Story of morning and services held at the windmill, dressed in white albs with coloured collars, including 'chapter of faults' involving communal confessions. Comments on character of MM, including her tendency to have difficult relations with wives of EP members. [1:36:15] Story of journey from 11 Millington Road to the windmill in convoy of vehicles. Detailed comments on MM's view of importance of ritual in religion. [1:40:50] Further comments on character of DPR; DPR's relations with MM; attraction of Quakers and Buddhists to EP which was firmly Anglican; eccentric character of FPR; first wife's relations with EPs. [1:45:25] Comments on copy of first EP conference, 1954; topics that tended to be discussed by EPs, especially the extent to which science could extend insights derived from contemplative aspects of Christianity, against understandings of science and religion as in conflict or complementary but distinct. Comments on TB's interest in significance of number 137 in relationships of scale in the universe; expectations of unfamiliarity/strangeness of future science in outlook of EP. [1:52:43] Comments on lack of interaction between EP and other groups/individuals concerned with relations between science and religion (such as John Polkinghorne). [1:55:34] Comments continuation of PhD in US in 1967, using computers there; development of career in the US so that - after 1967 - relations with the EP were confined to periods of time spent back in the UK; TB's "intellectual flirtation" with Uri Geller [UG] and interest in parapsychology more generally; experiments on 'distant vision'; view of Rupert Sheldrake as sharing TB's interest in testing claims of parapsychology. [2:02:31] Comments on PhD thesis, including extent to which own use of computers was novel for a UOC philosophy PhD on 'semantic reference', its focus on developing ideas of RH Richens on semantic representation using 100 monosyllabic classifiers (mentions folk, man, be, stuff, thing) to capture meaning combined with algebraic formulas, influence on own PhD of work of MM on breaking down of language not by grammar but by "compact triples" (aRb) called "semantic templates". Comments on MM's interest in "breath groups" later in her career. Further comments on own thesis, including its application of computer analysis of 'semantic reference' to metaphysical texts (mentions Kant, Descartes, Spinoza), influence of paper - recommended by RB - published in journal 'Mind' by R. G. Bosanquet: 'Remarks on Spinoza's Ethics' in development of own 'sense recovery procedure'. [2:15:11] Brief story of engagement of RB as own PhD supervisor. Comments on relations with/character of RB. Further comments on character of MM, with related stories. [2:17:37] Positive comments on abilities/ideas of RB, including subject of his inaugural lecture 'Theory of Games as a Tool for the Moral Philosopher', his book 'An Empiricist's View of the Nature of Religious Belief' [1955]. Mentions RB's book 'Scientific Explanation' [1953]. Story of RB writing, later in life, an unpublished book 'The Logic of God'. [2:23:04] Comments on story of later division of Marion Close from the convent; MM's death from motor neurone disease (cared for in later life by DE). Story of continuation of EP (led by TB, JM and DE) following MM's death [in 1986]; split of EP into group called 'Alternative Natural Philosophy Association' [ANPA] (associated especially with TB, FPR, Fraser Watts, self) and group the 'Scientific Medical Network' including Rupert Sheldrake and Chris Clarke, with funds from sale of Marion Close split between the two groups. Comments on use of ANPA half of money to fund work in physics and then (following end of EP in 2010) to foundation led by FW. Mentions funding from this foundation for current EP website project. [2:31:43] Comments on involvement of Kwame Anthony Appiah in EP; limited extent/nature of interest of EP in politics. Story of experience of resistance to publication of own edited collection of MM's work 'Language, Cohesion and Form' [2010] linked to MM's latter association with David Shillan and Harry Rutherford; destruction of CLRU archive.

  • Description

    Life story interview with Computer Scientist Yorick Wilks

  • Related transcripts

    Yorick Wilks interviewed by Paul Merchant: full transcript of the interview

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