2007 : WHAT ARE YOU OPTIMISTIC ABOUT?

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Theoretical Physicist; Aix-Marseille University, in the Centre de Physique Théorique, Marseille, France; Author, The First Scientist: Anaximander and His Legacy
Physicist, Universite' de la Mediterrane' (Marseille, France); Author: What is time? What is Space?

The Divide Between Rational Scientific Thinking and the Rest of Our Culture Is Decreasing

Some days I wake up optimistic, others not at all. When I am optimistic, I think that humans are increasingly realizing that rational thinking is indeed better for them than irrational thinking. In the process, scientific thinking is growing in depth, healing itself from a certain traditional superficiality, re-gaining contact with the rest of the culture, learning to deal with with the complexity of the search for knowledge, and with the full complexity of the human experience. Non-scientific thinking is still everywhere, but it is losing ground.

In the small world of the academia, the senseless divide between science and the humanities is slowly evaporating. Intellectuals on both sides realize that the complexity of contemporary knowledge cannot be seen unless we look at it all. A contemporary philosopher that ignores scientific thinking is out of the world, but an increasing number of theoretical physicists are also realizing, for instance, that to solve quantum gravity we cannot avoid addressing foundational "philosophical" questions.  And an increasing number of scientists coming out of the lab, and speaking out (here on Edge, for instance).

When I am pessimistic, I think that history shows that human madness with us to stay: war, greed for more power and more richness, religion, certainty to be the depositary of the ultimate Truth, fear of those different from us ... I see all this madness solidly in control of the planet's affairs. And even some of my scientists friends trust homeopathy.

When I am optimistic I think that the past was worse: we are definitely going towards a better and more reasonable world. There are countries today that have not started a war in decades, and, in fact, these countries are the majority: it is something new in the history of the world. The number of people that have realized how much nonsensical is there in religion continues to increase, and no doubt this will help decrease belligerency and intolerance.

But the process is in both sides. In a recent interview with CNN, the Dalai Lama was asked how it feels to be the leader of a major religion in a secular world. He smiled and answered that he was happy to see that the modern word has a rich secular spiritual life. A secular spiritual life is a life rich intellectually and emotionally. The next question was whether he really believed he was the Dalai Lama, reincarnation of previous Dalai Lamas. This time he laughed, and answered "of course I am the Dalai Lama", but to be the "reincarnation" of previous Lamas, he continued, does not mean to "be them": it means to continue something that they had been developing. Not all our major religious leaders are so reasonable, of course. But if one can be so, can't we hope, at least in our optimistic moments, the others will follow?

Twenty six centuries have lapsed since Anaximander suggested that rain is not sent by Zeus. Rather, it is water evaporated by the sun and carried by the wind. The battle to realize that the scientific method of representing knowledge and the science-minded mode of thinking is deeper, richer and better for us than any God, is still ongoing, but by no means is it lost, as it often seems.