2007 : WHAT ARE YOU OPTIMISTIC ABOUT?

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Theoretical Physicist, Dartmouth College; author, The Island of Knowledge
Physicist, Dartmouth College; Author, The Prophet and the Astronomer

That the Debate or, Should I Say, War, Between Science and Religion Will See New Light

I'm optimistic that the debate or, should I say, war, between science and religion will see new light. Right now, the fracturing seems to be worsening, as further entrenchment occurs on both sides. Books from Edge colleagues trashing religion as collective hallucination or delusion, or, better still, as idiotic superstition, carry a simple message to people outside the sciences: we are as radical as the religious extremists, as inflexible and intolerant as the movements we seek to exterminate by our oh-so-crystal-clear-and-irresistibly-compelling rationalizations.

Although I'm also an atheist, I do not forget what is behind the power of religious thought. Quite simply: hope. Life is though, people suffer, and, rightly or wrongly, religion offers something for people to hold on to. Yes, it's wild to believe in supernatural influences in the world, yes it's crazy to devote your life to a God that seems to have vanished from the world for, under conservative estimates, "at least" 2000 years. But scientists cannot forget that most people need some sort of spiritual guidance, a kind of guidance science, at least as is taught today, cannot offer. Science has shown, and keeps showing, that we live in a cold, hard universe, completely indifferent to us and to life. And yet, people love, die, connect, fight, and must come to some sort of inner peace, of acceptance. What can science offer these people?

It is futile and naive to simply dismiss the real need people have for spirituality.

My hope is that people will begin to see science as a vehicle for mutual understanding and for respecting life. The more we study life and its mechanisms, the more we realize how rare it is, how precious it is. Sure, there may be life elsewhere, and it may even be intelligent. However, even if this is the case, odds are we are still going to be stuck with ourselves, in this planet or our solar neighborhood, for quite some time. Either we learn that science teaches us humility and respect for life and the environment, or we exterminate this most precious cosmic jewel. I am optimistic that scientists will teach people these lessons, instead of simply try to rob them of their faith and offering nothing in return.