October 2, 2008

Let's Celebrate The Real Big Questions

Although it isn't directly relevant to neuroscience or neuropsychology, this excellent essay from Lawrence Krauss in the September (2008) edition of New Scientist discusses premises that I often encounter in my discussions with people:
LAST year I agreed to write a short essay for an advertisement featuring the question: "Does the universe have a purpose?" It was to appear in major media outlets, including The New York Times, The Economist and New Scientist. I was asked to express my views in my own words, so I wasn't worried that they would be distorted to support an ulterior agenda. I considered the ad a useful outlet for communicating how I believe science can inform this question.

I was naive. The ad, which was sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation - an organisation that aims to find links between science and religion - was the first instalment in a Big Ideas series, and has been followed up by essays on: "Does science make belief in God obsolete?" Next week the otherwise well-grounded Skeptics Society is to run a related conference, also sponsored by Templeton, called Origins. According to their promotional material, "the Big Questions... involve Origins", such as the origins of the universe, the laws of nature, time's arrow, life and consciousness. "Science is making significant headway into providing natural explanations for these ultimate questions, which leaves us with the biggest question of all: does science make belief in God obsolete?"

Unfortunately, despite the money being channelled into such meetings and ads, this is neither a very big question nor a very big idea. The issue may be of importance to some theologians and philosophers, but it is essentially irrelevant to scientists. In the academic departments where these origins are being investigated, the question is almost never raised.

Scientists may, if asked, express views on issues relating to purpose and religion, especially to counter ill-conceived notions that might mislead the public, but in our work we focus on scientific questions that can be addressed by the tools we have to explore the universe. Whether any form of modern religion is made obsolete by our progress is a tangential and almost trivial point. If new knowledge about the universe cannot be worked into these philosophies, they will become obsolete. Otherwise, they persist.

While the participants have changed, the so-called debate over the relation between science and religion has hardly progressed in 400 years. Today's arguments about intelligent design, for example, are little different from those of Thomas Aquinas and William Paley, though the realm in which the debate is taking place has been shifted from human scales to scales that are many, many times smaller or larger. Focusing on such stale and fruitless questions prevents the public from appreciating the truly interesting intellectual frontiers in science.

I recently moved to Arizona to lead a new programme on Origins at Arizona State University. Its purpose is to explore and celebrate emerging knowledge on origins: from that of the universe to humanity, consciousness to culture. We will be sponsoring, among other things, a big public event in Phoenix in April 2009, where speakers including Stephen Hawking, Richard Dawkins, Craig Venter, Brian Greene and Steven Pinker will focus on the real questions driving intellectual progress across science. Is there a multiverse? Are the laws of nature unique? What caused the big bang? How did life arise on Earth? How abundant and diverse is life in the universe? How did humans evolve consciousness? Can machines think? Can we genetically re-engineer humans?

These are the questions that reflect the remarkable upheavals and challenges that our understanding of nature has faced over the past century. Our efforts to answer them will form the basis of knowledge and action in the next.

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