Authors@Google: Steve Paulson


Uploaded by AtGoogleTalks on 10.12.2010

Transcript:
>>Male presenter: Ok, so today we have Steve Paulson in to give a talk about his book,
"Atoms in Eden." He's a contributor to "To the Best of Our Knowledge" on Wisconsin Public
Radio and should be a very good talk about science and religion. So, this is Steve Paulson.
[applause]
>>Steve: Thank you. I'm delighted to be here and I have been working on this subject for
about four years or so. So, I'm going to play you, being a radio guy, play you a few excerpts
from interviews I've done and will, I'm sure, answer all your questions about the connections
between science and religion. You've probably heard about Stephen Hawking's new book were
he says, "We don't need God to explain the design of the universe," but actually, what's
more interesting to me at least is his claim that science can finally answer some of the
great existential questions, like "Why is there something rather than nothing?" and
"Why do we exist?" Hawking writes, "Traditionally, these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy
is dead because it hasn't kept up with developments in science." Of course, Hawking is wrong.
Philosophy is not dead and religion isn't dead either, but what's really interesting
is how the intellectual assault on philosophy and religion has come so far. And I can cite
another example. Sam Harris, the famous atheist, has a new book out called, "The Moral Landscape,"
in which he argues that "we need a new understanding of morality based not on religion, but on
science." He's out to demolish the idea that science is, by definition, a value-free space.
So, questions about meaning and purpose, those very things that philosophers and theologians
have obsessed about for centuries are now apparently in the realm of science.
I have to say I love these books. I love talking about them, love doing interviews about them;
about these kinds of big ideas. And that's what my own book "Atoms in Eden" is all about.
It's a collection of 20 interviews with a lot of the major figures in the science and
religion debate. From all different perspectives, I talk with atheists and religious believers
and with people whose views I cannot possibly even categorize. If there's an underlying
agenda to my book, it's my conviction that we cannot understand the relationship between
science and religion without looking at it from many different angles. We have to consider
recent findings from evolutionary biology, quantum physics, cosmology and neuroscience.
We also need a solid grounding in theology, religious history and what William James called
"the varieties of religious experience." This is a really complicated and fascinating subject.
The science and religion debate is not just about evolution and creationism.
There's one basic question that animates all of my interviews, "What is a scientifically
literate, rationally-minded person, someone who's impatient with religious doctrine, but
open to spiritual experience, in other words, me; what is that person supposed to think
about religion in the 21st Century?" So, what I'm gonna do is I'm gonna talk for about 40
minutes or so, and I'm a radio guy so I'll play a bunch of short audio clips. They'll
all go roughly between one and three minutes or so. These are from interviews I've done.
Originally, they've aired on the radio, but they also were always intended to be part
of this book that I've just written. Then when I'm done, we'll open it up to questions
and comments from you.
I first came up with the idea for this book four years ago when I interviewed the renowned
biologist, E.O. Wilson, who grew up as a Fundamentalist Southern Baptist in Alabama. In recent years,
he's become one of the most outspoken critics of creationism. In my interview, he argued
strongly against the possibility of any kind of divine intervention in the evolutionary
process and then we got to this point in the interview.
[plays audio clip]
>>Steve: I've heard you call yourself a deist.
>>Wilson: Yea, I don't wanna be called an atheist.
>>Steve: Why not?
>>Wilson: You know, being a good scientist and having been drawn up short so many times
on my own theories, as all honest scientists are, I don't want to exclude the possibility
of a creative force or deity. I think that would be a mistake. And as Hans Kung, the
theologian, once said, "How are we to explain there is something and not nothing?" Well,
that's a question I'm happy to leave to the astrophysicists as to why, really, laws of
the universe came and what is the meaning of the origin of existence? But I do feel
confident there is no intervention of a deity in the origin of life and humanity.
>>Steve: So, that's the distinction between theism and deism, and so--
>>Wilson: That is the distinction between--
>>Steve: in, in, in--
>>Wilson: So, I'm not a theist, but I'll be a provisional deist.
>>Steve: But now, just so I understand this, to be a deist, you're saying that maybe there
was some creators, some presence that--
>>Wilson: Wait. Well, maybe. That has not been--
>>Steve: says the laws of--
>>Wilson: discounted. That's not discounted yet as a hypothesis. That's why I put the
word provisional--
>>Steve: But, it's fascinating because everything you've said up until now suggests that you
should be an atheist. Why sort of hold out that specter, that well, maybe there was some
divine presence that got the whole thing going?
>>Wilson: Well, because there's a possibility that a God or gods, I don't think it would
resemble anything of the Judeo-Christian variety or a super intelligent force came along, started
the universe with a big bang and then moved on to the next creation. I, I can't discount
that.
[end of clip]
>>Steve: A lot of the conversation about science and religion in terms of how you understand
a few key words like, God, religion and transcendence, and a great deal also rides on how much of
reality you think can be explained by science. One of my favorite interviews was with Karen
Armstrong, a British historian who's written a number of best-selling books, including
"A History of God" and a memoir, "A Spiral Staircase," which charts her own spiritual
journey from a young nun in a convent to atheist to how she now describes herself: a freelance
monotheist. Don't ask. Her definition of religion is really interesting. She says, "None of
the great religious prophets cared about big metaphysical systems or even about theology."
[pause]
[plays radio clip]
>>Karen: Jesus did not spend a great deal of time discoursing about the Trinity or original
sin or the incarnation, or the atonement, which preoccupied later Christians. He went
around doing good, being compassionate. And in the Koran, metaphysical speculation is
regarded as self-indulgent guesswork, [inaudible ], and it makes people, the Koran says, quarrelsome
and stupidly sectarian. You can't prove these things one way or the other, so why quarrel
about it?" And, I think, sometimes the way monotheists talk about God is unreligious.
>>Steve: And unreligious, like, the personal God, for instance?
>>Karen: Yes, because people very often talk about it as though he's a kind of acquaintance
and whom they can second guess. People will say, God loves that. God wills that and God
despises the other, and very often, the opinions of the deity are made to coincide exactly
with those of the speaker.
>>Steve: And yet, we certainly see talk of a personal God in various sacred texts. I
mean, the--
>>Karen: Yes.
>>Steve: people are just making that up.
>>Karen: No, but the great theologians in Judaism and Christianity and Islam say yes,
you begin with an idea of a God who is personal, but God transcends personality as God transcends
every other human characteristic, such as gender. You know, very often people hear about
God at about the same time as they're learning about Santa Claus.
>>Steve: Hmm.
>>Karen: But their ideas of Santa Claus mature and change in time, but their idea of God
remains infantile.
>>Steve: What about the supernatural, though? Do you need any--
>>Karen: No.
>>Steve: sense of the miraculous or of things that cannot be explained by science, by this
world?
>>Karen: I think religions hold us in an attitude of awe and wonder. People such as the Buddha
thought miracles were vulgar displays of power and often displays of ego. If you look at
the miracles attributed to Jesus, the healing miracles, they generally had some kind of
symbolic aspect about healing the soul, rather than showily; showing off a supernatural power
because that can be an exercise in ego to some, too.
[end of clip]
>>Steve: Now, as you might guess, Richard Dawkins has a very different understanding
of religion. Of course, Dawkins is an eminent biologist and the world's most famous atheist
and he's a really fun person to interview because he does not mince words. And I'm gonna
play a short excerpt from our interview, which was somewhat contentious, but a lot of fun.
[plays radio clip]
>>Richard: I think that religious belief is a scientific belief in the sense that it makes
claims about the universe, which are, essentially, scientific claims.
>>Steve: What about the old adage that science deals with the "how" questions and religion
deals with the "why" questions?
>>Richard: Yes, I think that's remarkably stupid, if I may say so. What on earth is
a "why" question? There are why questions that mean something in a Darwinian world.
We say, "Why do birds have wings to fly with?" They don't mean that though. They mean "why"
in a sort of deliberate, purposeful sense. Those of us who don't believe in religion,
supernatural religion, would say there is no such thing as a "why" question in that
sense. Now, the mere fact that you can frame an English sentence beginning with the word
"why" does not mean that that English sentence deserves or should receive an answer. I could
say, "Why are unicorns hollow?" It's a perfectly good English sentence. It appears to mean
something, but you don't think that it deserves an answer.
>>Steve: But it seems to me, the big why questions are, "Why are we here?" and "What is our purpose
in life?" Ok, that's a "what" question, but it's basically a "why" question, and--
>>Richard: No, that's right. It is a "why" question, but it's not a question that deserves
an answer.
>>Steve: Well, but I think most people would say those questions which are central to the
way most people think about their lives, I mean, those are the big existential questions,
but those are also questions that are beyond science.
>>Richard: If you mean, what is the purpose of the existence of the universe, then I'm
saying that is quite simply begging the question, "If you happen to be religious, you think
that's a meaningful question." Those of us who don't believe in a God will say, "That
is as illegitimate as the question 'Why are unicorns hollow?'" It just shouldn't be put.
It's not a proper question to put. It doesn't deserve an answer.
>>Steve: I guess I don't understand then. I mean, doesn't every person wonder about
that? I mean, isn't that just this core question of what are doing in this world? Doesn't everyone
struggle with that?
>>Richard: Here's the, there are core questions. There are core questions like, "How did the
universe begin?" "Where do the laws of physics come from?" "Where does life come from?" "Why,
after some period of billions of years, did life originate on this planet and then start
evolving?" Those are all perfectly legitimate questions to which science can give answers.
If not now, than we hope in the future. There may be some very, very deep questions, perhaps
even "where did the laws of physics come from?" that science will never answer. That is perfectly
possible. I'm hopeful, along with some physicists, that science will one day answer that question,
but even if they don't, even if there are some supremely deep questions to which science
can never answer, what on earth makes you think that religion can answer those questions?
>>Steve: I'm not saying that religion can answer, but I guess my point is that people
still ask those questions and as you very articulately said, they seem to be beyond
the purview of science, but aren't they still legitimate questions to ask? Even if, even
if you can't get any definitive answer.
>>Richard: Well, a legitimate question is, "Where do the laws of physics come from?"
An illegitimate question, in my view, is, "What is the purpose of the laws of physics?"
Because what is the purpose of the laws of physics implies that there's some kind of
deliberate purpose-giver or purpose-thinker, which begs the question we're trying to answer,
which is, "Is there a God?"
[end of clip]
>>Steve: So, that is Richard Dawkins. Now, I have to tell you it's really hard to get
a clear understanding of the words God and religion. Take the case of Albert Einstein.
There's a huge debate right now between religious believers and atheists over who gets to claim
Einstein, the most famous scientist of the last century. And it's because Einstein, himself,
made a number of rather cryptic comments. He called himself a "deeply religious non-believer."
He said, "Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind." And most
famously he claimed, "God does not play dice with the universe." So, the question is who
is this God that Einstein was talking about? I'm gonna play you several different responses.
The first is from Elaine Pagels, the famous scholar of the Gnostic Gospels, whose late
husband was the noted physicist, Heinz Pagels.
[plays radio clip]
>>Elaine: You know, part of the problem there is that Einstein used the language about God
as a conscious metaphor. When he said, "God doesn't play dice with the universe," that
is, he meant the universe is not put together in an accidental way. Einstein was speaking
about God in the way that physicists would, aware that language like that is always going
to be metaphorical; speaking about something beyond our understanding.
[end of clip]
>>Steve: The Nobel Prize winning physicist and atheist, Steven Weinberg, has a different
take. He says Einstein was just using poetic language when he talked about religion, which
from Weinberg's perspective was a big mistake.
[plays radio clip]
>>Steven: Einstein, in a letter to a friend of his, famously explained that he did not
believe in a God who cared about human beings, who was concerned with human affairs; that
for him, God was a synonym for harmony and order in the universe. In other words, when
Einstein says, "God," he really is talking about the laws of nature or whatever fundamental
principle governs the universe. Clearly, what he meant by "God" is so vague and so far from
conventional religion that it seems to me a misuse of the word. I think the concept
of God has historically had a fairly definite meaning, of course, people have argued endlessly
about the attributes of God, but there were common features that God was conscious, that
God was powerful, that God was benevolent to some extent. If you're not going to use
the word God to mean something like that, something like its historical meaning, then
I don't think you should use the word.
[end of clip]
>>Steve: For a very different view, let's turn to Einstein's most recent biographer,
Walter Isaacson. He says it's a mistake to dismiss Einstein's comments as strictly metaphorical.
Isaacson claims that Einstein knew exactly what he was doing when he used words like
God and religion.
[plays radio clip]
>>Walter: At one point, some cardinal in Boston said, "Well, it still smacks of atheism cause
it's not a personal God." So, Rabbi Goldstein, head of the Reform Jewish Movement in New
York, sends him a telegram and says, "Do you or do you not believe in God, Einstein? Answer
in 50 words or less." And Einstein says, "I believe in Spinoza's God; a God who's spirit
is manifest in the harmonies of the universe." I think the most important thing for Einstein
is that there was a sense of humility. We do not know the answer here, but he did say
he did have a belief in what he called his God and a God as a creator.
>>Steve: Well, I think a lot of people just see this as, "Oh, he was exercising his poetic
license." He wanted to use God a kind of a synonym for mystery or something like that,
but he took that word more seriously.
>>Walter: When he was asked whether he was using the word just symbolically or whatever,
he said, "No." He wasn't. He considered himself having a cosmic religion. He thought there
was a spirit manifest in the laws of the universe and to him that was his notion of God. Now,
I know I've read Richard Dawson who say's it's much more figurative. People kept saying,
"Well, you're just speaking figuratively." And he says, "No."
[end of clip]
>>Steve: There is, by the way, another really interesting piece of history. Many of the
major figures in the development of 20th Century physics, especially quantum physics, were
fascinated by spiritual and philosophical ideas. Schrodinger had a profound satory experience
and he was deeply influenced by Vedantic Hinduism. Heisenberg had similar experiences. Wolfgang
Pauli was a patient of Carl Jung and they carried on a correspondence for more than
30 years. In fact, Pauli became convinced that certain strange paranormal experiences
were real and there was the well-known Pauli Effect. When he walked into the labs of other
scientists, their equipment kept breaking to the point where they actually told him
to stay away. Apparently, this did not happen in Pauli's own laboratory. Then a little later,
David Bohm, whom Einstein once considered his successor, had a very intense friendship
with the Indian mystic, Krishnamurti. These were all great, hardnosed scientists, but
they were also philosophers who were humbled by the revelations of modern physics. They
thought the nature of material reality was profoundly mysterious and my guess is they
would find Stephen Hawkings recent comments about God and the death of philosophy to be
a bit simplistic. I wanna come back to the question of language because it's so important
to the public conversation about science and religion. There's a really fascinating movement
right now among some secular scientists and philosophers. They tend to go by the name
Religious Naturalists and these people want to appropriate the word religion. And while
they don't believe in God, they're impatient with a hardcore atheists who simply want to
dismiss religion. One of the most provocative arguments comes from the biologist Stewart
Kauffman, one of the gurus of complexity theory and a recipient of a MacArthur Genius Award.
He doesn't just want to reclaim the word religion; he wants to change the meaning of the word
God. Kauffman wrote a book called "Reinventing the Sacred," but his notion of the sacred
is rooted in science. He talks about God as the ceaseless creativity in the universe,
which he calls "stunning, awesome and worthy of reverence." And he rejects the scientific
idea that everything can be reduced ultimately to the laws of physics. Kauffman believes
that biology has its own unpredictable properties and he says, "Life, value, meaning and consciousness
are all things that emerge as part of this creative universe." But I still wasn't clear
why he wanted to invent a whole new meaning for the word God.
[plays radio clip]
>>Stewart: God is the most powerful symbol humanity has created. We've been worshipping
God or gods at least since the sacred Earth Mother, ten thousand years ago in Europe.
Whether it's the creator, transcendent God of the Abrahamic tradition or other notions
of God, God carries with it a sense of awe, reverence, wonder that no other symbol carries.
Now, we have our choice. Is it more astonishing to believe that a creator God created everything
that has come to exist; the planets, the galaxies, chemistry, life, consciousness, agency in
six days? Or, is it equally or even more astonishing and awesome to believe what is almost certainly
the truth? Namely, that all of this came to be all on its own.
>>Steve: Ok, you can say all that, but you don't have to talk about God. And yet, you,
for some reason want to invoke--
>>Stewart: I want to invoke God.
>>Steve: Yeah, why?
>>Stewart: It is precisely to say that God is nature, or God is in nature. And that's
the God of Spinoza. That's the God that Einstein believed in. If we can transfer our secular
humanist, consumerist world view into one in which we have this sense of responsibility,
awe and wonder for all life, we are inventing a global ethic that we don't have now, yet
we need it to sustain the global civilization that's emerging.
[end of clip]
>>Steve: Clearly, one of the big landmines in the science and religion debate is evolution.
Various polls show that roughly half of all Americans believe the Earth is no more than
ten thousand years old, and three quarters of Americans say the Bible is the word of
God. This may be partly a reaction to comments by certain atheists, for instance the philosopher
Daniel Dennett has talked about Darwinism as a kind of universal asset; it eats away
at everything it touches including, in his view, God as creator. To me, the biggest intellectual
challenge that the theory of evolution poses to religion has nothing to do with the story
of Genesis. It's very obvious that you cannot reconcile a literal reading of the Bible with
modern science. The real question is whether you can believe in both underlying purpose
and natural selection; this very gradual process of random genetic mutations. Steven Jay Gould
believed that if you reran the tape of evolution, you would get a totally different result.
You would certainly not end up with human beings again. And his view has major theological
implications. It raises the specter that humans are just a lucky, evolutionary accident with
no inherent meaning or purpose. So, I don't think it's surprising that many religious
believers find evolution very troubling. Now in my mind, one of the most intriguing
responses to Gould comes from the Cambridge University Paleontologist Simon Conway Morris.
His theory of convergence argues that the outcomes of evolution are highly constrained;
there are only so many ways that creatures can evolve. The most controversial part of
his argument is his claim that the evolution of Homo sapiens, or intelligent creatures
very much like us, was inevitable once life started on Earth.
[plays radio clip]
>>Simon: Practically everything which makes us human is already present in a nascent form
in one or other group of animals. This is not to say that every single species on a
planet is trying to turn into humans. What I'm trying to say is that because of the striking
convergences in the mental worlds, famously between crows and the great expert also, dolphins.
From that perspective, if we're first on the block, fine. But there are many other groups
of animals which are really not so far behind.
>>Steve: But aren't human beings here by a massive stroke of luck? I mean the asteroid
that hit the Earth 63 million years ago that wiped out the dinosaurs and if that asteroid
had never hit, wouldn't dinosaurs have continued to dominate the Earth and prevent large mammals
from evolving, including humans?
>>Simon: Oh, I think that's absolutely correct. I think that if the asteroid had sailed past
harmlessly and thank goodness many asteroids do, then indeed, the dinosaurs would be here
at the present day. But what I want you to now imagine, in fact, is we've now gotta fast
forward our conversation by about 30 million years. And I'm afraid I have to tell you that
dinosaurs have now disappeared; they've been hunted to extinction and we're still sitting
in the studio and we are using an advanced technology.
>>Steve: Who hunted the dinosaurs into extinction?
>>Simon: One or other group of warm-blooded creatures. It could've been the birds, sometimes
underestimated, but more likely I think the mammals. So, the asteroid hits, bang, ok,
right, dinosaurs gone, big reptiles gone. Birds and mammals look at each other and say,
"Well, this is a wonderful opportunity. Let's evolve." But, that asteroid misses; it's a
counterfactual history. What's gonna happen? Well, my view is fortunately for us, but unfortunately
for dinosaurs, round about 20 million years off, the asteroid missed, the world is actually
beginning to get surprisingly cold. We're starting the great Ice Ages, which culminated
in the last three or four million years. Now, in this counterfactual world, you've got the
temperate and the Polar Regions, which are persistently cold. Now, we have good reason
to think that dinosaurs are not effectively warm-blooded. We know that birds and mammals,
by and large, are more intelligent than the reptiles. We know that they're more socially
adept and we know convergently, that they evolve a prototechnology; they're tool-makers.
So then one says, "What's gonna happen next?" Well, my sense would be that sooner or later
one or other group of hunters is gonna emerge. It doesn't have to be exactly the same history
as what he had on this planet, but the end result will be the same. What happened when
the hunting really got going, especially North America and to some extent Africa and also
Australia, is all the big mammals disappeared. What would have happened in that counterfactual
world would have been that a Tyrannosaurus going down under a hail of arrows and spears,
rather than the mastodon, for instance, in North America.
[end of clip]
>>Steve: I should add that Simon Conway Morris is a Christian. He believes evolution has
direction, but he's very cautious about saying it has some purpose, or endpoint. He says
those are religious ideas rather than scientific concepts. Francis Collins is another prominent
Christian scientist and he may be uniquely situated in playing a key role in the science
and religion debate as the former head of the Human Genome Project and the current Director
of the National Institutes of Health. He's one of America's most visible scientists and
he has impeccable scientific credentials; a medical degree as well as a PhD in Quantum
Mechanics. He has a distinguished track record as a gene hunter. He's also an Evangelical
Christian, someone who has no qualms about professing his belief in miracles or seeing
God's hand behind all of creation. In his book, "The Language of God," he tries to stake
out the middle ground between Darwinian atheists and religious fundamentalists. I asked Francis
Collins the same question I asked Simon Conway Morris, "Isn't it a lucky accident the asteroid
wiped out the dinosaurs paving the way, eventually, for humans?" Here is his answer.
[plays radio clip]
>>Francis: I don't think so. I can see the arguments that you just voiced and why they
trouble people, but they are based upon the idea that God has the same limitations that
we do. We are limited to the arrow of time. We cannot contemplate what it is like to be
able to affect the future and the present and the past all at once. But God is not so
limited. What appears random to us, such as an asteroid hitting the Earth, need not have
been random to Him at all. As soon as you accept the idea of God as creator, then the
randomness argument essentially goes out the window.
>>Steve: Now, is this to say that God set that asteroid in motion that wiped out the
dinosaurs so that eventually human beings could evolve?
>>Francis: Oh, goodness. That's getting into more specific details than I would dare to
imagine, but I would dare to say that God had a plan of creatures like us. Need they
have looked exactly like us, or is "in his image" an indication of the spirit, the moral
law, the free will, the sense of who we are, the consciousness? In which case, perhaps
it didn't matter so much whether that ended up occurring in mammals or some other life
form.
>>Steve: Well, I guess I'm trying to figure out if you think that God intervenes in the
affairs of human beings? Because virtually all of your arguments so far is no; God stays
out of that realm of humanity.
>>Francis: I think God can intervene. I think that's what the great miracles are. Certainly
God intervened in the person of Jesus Christ and in the most amazing miracle of all, the
resurrection. But I don't think God sort of pops up in lots of circumstances and turns
around the course of events. I think those are reserved for special moments of special
significance with a special lesson involved.
>>Steve: Well, I have to ask you about a couple of the best known miracles in the Bible. Do
you believe in the virgin birth?
>>Francis: I do.
>>Steve: And the resurrection? Do you believe that what was resurrected was the physical
body of Jesus?
>>Francis: Physical body, we should be careful in terms of exactly what you mean by that.
Does that mean the cellular structure was exactly the same as it was when he was alive?
I don't know, but I believe that he was resurrected in physical form and seen by witnesses who
he spoke to before he then ascended. That is the absolute cornerstone of the Christian
faith.
>>Steve: But how can you, as a scientist, accept some of these ideas in the Bible because
they cut so directly against the laws of nature?
>>Francis: I have no trouble at all because again, the big decision is do you believe
in God? If you believe in God and if God is more than nature then there's no reason that
God could not stage an invasion into the natural world, which to our limited perspective would
appear to be a miracle.
[end of clip]
>>Steve: One of the major point of contention in the whole science and religion debate is
about consciousness, specifically, the relationship between brain and mind. And the big question
is whether the mind is strictly a product of the physical mechanics of the brain; the
neurons and synaptic connections. I actually think this, and not evolution, is now the
cutting edge of the science and religion debate. Think about it. If your mind can communicate
with God or some kind of larger intelligence, or if there really is life after death, then
consciousness must go beyond the purely physical mechanics of the brain. There are really two
questions here. First, is there any part of the mind that can operate independently of
the brain? And second, will brain science ever be able to explain how the mind works?
I've asked lots of people these questions and here's an excerpt from my interview with
the philosopher Daniel Dennett, who makes the argument for a materialist view of consciousness.
[plays radio clip]
>>Daniel: Well, there's lots of puzzles and there aren't any mysteries. I don't think
we have any truly, mind boggling, perplexities. There's plenty of very hard problems out there,
but I don't consciousness is a mystery.
>>Steve: But there are all kinds of things I can't imagine how science will ever be able
to explain. For instance, the precise nature of how we love someone else. I mean, I'm not
talking about the sex drive here, but I'm talking about the mystery of love or why we
have certain kinds of dreams and dreams, of course, are not rooted at all in the physical
world. I mean, if you dissect the brain somehow and look at all the neural connections, you
think science will ever be able to explain those things?
>>Daniel: Sure. In what sense of explain? Let's, let's build up to it cause science
doesn't do this all in one, one fell swoop; it's modest in-roads. Would you find it just
unimaginable that science might, in oh, the next 15 or 20 years, be able to read people's
brains while they sleep and then write down what they're actually dreaming? Would you
give me that kind of mind reading?
>>Steve: I don't think I would.
>>Daniel: We can't do it yet. We can do it a little bit.
>>Steve: I don't give you that, actually.
[Steve laughs]
>>Daniel: Well, well, than hang on to your hat.
>>Steve: Ok.
>>Daniel: That's coming. We can--
>>Steve: You're saying science will be able to do that without any kind of self-reporting
by the dreamer?
>>Daniel: No, we'll use waking reports by dreamers of course to calibrate the instruments
and understand how to decode the neural signals.
>>Steve: See, that's my point. That's my point. If you don't actually ask the person what
their dreaming, will you ever be able to decipher the dreams?
>>Daniel: Well, let's build up to it then. So, we ask the person what they're dreaming
for a hundred nights and we build up a nice library and we translate the relevant brain
states for that person and it will probably go person for person. I don't suppose it's
gonna be the same from one brain to the next, but then the idea that one might then be able
to say a little bit later, "Oh, look, look. Jones is having that dream about the old car
and look, he's falling over a cliff now." And we wake him up and that's what he reports.
If you think that's just beyond the reach of science, I think you're wrong.
>>Steve: But that's just correlation. That's just--
>>Daniel: That's right.
>>Steve: You're just looking at what so-and-so has dreamed and you're just gonna match the
brain imaging to some future dream. That still doesn't explain how, within the brain, that
particular kind of dream is generated.
>Daniel: Well, so we'll have to do that, too. But I think we're making good progress on
that, too. We can't do that now. Might we do that in the future? Certainly.
[end of clip]
>>Steve: Ken Wilber is a very different kind of philosopher. Unlike the reductionism of
Dan Dennett, Wilber embraces what he calls an integral philosophy; a theory of consciousness
with an explicitly spiritual dimension. He says a materialist understanding of consciousness
simply doesn't get you anywhere.
[plays radio clip]
>>Ken: If you're looking just material stuff, like a planet, it doesn't have life on it
or a rock. A physicist can tell you where that planet's gonna be, barring other forces,
a thousand years from now. But that physicist cannot tell you where my dog's gonna be two
seconds from now. It reduces everything. I mean, if that's the case, then your statement
itself and your awareness is nothing but neurochemical fireworks and you can make no distinctions
of value. There is no such thing as love is better than hate. All those value distinctions
are erased.
>>Steve: You can't make the value distinctions, but is there still anything to say that that
scientific view is wrong?
>>Ken: Well, at this point of course, you enter the philosophy of science and the argument
is endless. Is there nothing but physical stuff in the universe, or is there some sort
of interiority? Not, I'm not talking about ghosts and goblins and souls and all that
kind of stuff; just is there interiority? Is there an inside to the universe? And if
there is interiority, as there is exteriority, then that interiority is where consciousness
resides and where values reside. And you can't see that, but it's real.
[end of clip]
>>Steve: I've put the brain-mind question to dozens of people in my interviews and I've
gotten lots of different answers. Even prominent atheists are all over the map on the question
of consciousness. Unlike Dennett, Richard Dawkins told me, and I quote, "Consciousness
is the biggest puzzle facing biology, neurobiology, computational studies and evolutionary biology.
It is a very, very big problem." Steven Pinker, the well-known cognitive psychologist, does
not think science will ever figure out how the mind works by studying neurons and brain
chemistry. To understand the mind, he says you have to look at higher levels of mental
organization. Then there's Sam Harris, who may be the most vicious critic of religion
of them all, but he's also a long-time Buddhist mediator who's quite open about his own spiritual
experiences and to my astonishment, he even told me about having had telepathic experiences.
Here's the very end of my interview with Sam Harris.
[plays radio clip]
>>Steve: You are a neuroscientist. Do you think there's any chance that human consciousness
can survive after death?
>>Sam: I just don't know. One thing I can tell you is that we don't know what the actual
relationship between consciousnesses in the physical world is. There are good reasons
to be skeptical of the naive conception of a soul. We know that almost everything we
take ourselves to be, subjectively, all of our cognitive powers, our ability to understand
language, this is mediated by the brain and yet, we do not know what the relationship
between subjectivity and objectivity ultimately is. And for instance, yeah, we could be living
in a universe where consciousness goes all the way down to the bedrock so that there
is some interior subjective dimension to an electron, say. And we would not expect to
see any evidence of this, and so I'm actually quite skeptical of our ever being able to
resolve that question; what the real relationship between consciousness and matter ultimately
is.
>>Steve: That's interesting, though, because most evolutionary biologists, I mean, particularly
thinking the secular ones, would say, "Of course, consciousness cannot survive the brain.
It will not survive death." You are not willing to make that claim.
>>Sam: Yeah, I just don't know. I'm just trying to be honest about my gradations of uncertainty
and I think consciousness poses a unique problem. And if we were living in a universe where
consciousness survived death, in some sense, or just transcended the brain so that single
neurons were conscious, we would not expect to see it by our present techniques of neuroimaging
or cellular neuroscience. And we would never expect to see it.
[end of clip]
>>Steve: Now, I should say that even if you reject the materialist understanding of consciousness,
you don't necessarily get to God. Sam Harris certainly doesn't think so. What it does mean
is that you believe there are other dimensions of reality that contemporary science has a
very hard time explaining and it opens the door to various spiritual realities. Now I
have to say, I'm particularly fascinated by mystical experience and this is partly what
led me, surprisingly, to Jane Goodall, the famed field biologist. Her discoveries about
chimpanzees revolutionized the field of primatology and really, our understanding of what it means
to be human. What is less well-known is that Goodall also has a mystical side and in fact,
even talks about having had a paranormal vision of her dead husband. And on a personal note,
I will add that Jane Goodall was my hero. When I was growing up, I wanted be like her
and I was an intern at the National Zoo's field station in Front Royal, Virginia. And
right when I finished high school, I spend six months out there because I wanted to do
what Jane Goodall did. Well, it didn't work out that way and here I am in public radio
and I have the great privilege of interviewing people like Jane Goodall. And here is a portion
of that interview.
[plays radio clip]
>>Steve: Did you find yourself wondering what was happening inside the mind of a chimpanzee?
>>Jane: Constantly. I still maintain if I could be inside the mind of a chimpanzee for
just a few minutes, I would learn more about them than another goodness knows how many
years of study. Cause we can guess what they're thinking, but how do they think? How do they
think? Are they thinking in pictures? How do you think without words? I spent ages thinking
about that, wondering about it.
>>Steve: Were there any particular moments when you felt like you had a better understanding
of that?
>>Jane: One moment was very, very special and that was when I was sitting in the forest
with David Greybeard and I picked up a fruit and held it out to him and he turned his head
away and I put my hand closer. And he turned, looking directly into my eyes, he reached
out, took the fruit, dropped it; he really didn't want it and then he very gently squeezed
my hand, which is how chimpanzees reassure each other. And so, in that moment we communicated
in a way that seems to pre-date words, perhaps in a way that was used by our own common ancestor,
millions of years ago. And it was an extraordinary feeling. It was bridging these two worlds.
>>Steve: Sounds like you're very drawn to this whole idea of somehow knowing the world
without language, without words.
>>Jane: I am fascinated by it; I always have been. When we think with words and when we
don't think with words, I think we come close to what mystics might describe as a mystical
experience because I don't think that words would come into that.
>>Steve: Did you have any experiences like that at Gombe? I mean, what we would call
mystical experiences?
>>Jane: Yeah, sometimes. One was just when I'd been following a little group of chimpanzees
and I was very wet and they climbed in the evening up into this tree which had new shoots
of beautiful lime green and the sun behind them was making them shine and the trunks
of the trees were still wet and the chimpanzees coats were black ebony shot with little gleams
of chestnut and the smell of ripe figs was strong in the air and then this beautiful
male bush buck appeared with his coat dark with the rain, and his spiraled horns gleaming
and just stood there. And it seemed I could hear the insects really loud and clear and
it was, it was just incredibly vivid beingness and being at one with that beautiful world.
>>Steve: Sounds like you lost your sense of your own self.
>>Jane: Well, that's it. Totally losing sense of one's own self and that's the only way
I can really study animals because if I'm on my own, I forget that I'm there.
[end of clip]
>>Steve: Now, I was going to end with that excerpt, but if you will indulge me, I wanna
play one last clip. This, from a second interview with Richard Dawkins when he came through
Madison, where I live not long ago because it pertains to these questions about how we
define religion. And frankly, for a radio guy, Dawkins is just irresistible.
[plays radio clip]
>>Steve: I came across a book that has just come out by Chris Hedges, the former New York
Times reporter. The book is called, "I Don't Believe in Atheists," and I wanna quote a
passage from his book and get your reaction. He writes, "The question is not whether God
exists. It is whether we contemplate or are utterly indifferent to the transcendent, that
which cannot be measured or quantified, that which lies beyond the reach of rational deduction.
We all encounter this aspect of existence in love, beauty, alienation, loneliness, suffering,
good, evil and the reality of death. These powerful, non-rational, super real forces
in human life are the domain of religion." What do you make of that assessment of religion?
>>Richard: Bullshit.
[laughter]
I mean, let's go, let's go through that. Was the word transcendent, I'd forgotten what--
>>Steve: Transcendent was one of his words, yes.
>>Richard: Ok, yes. Now, in science, there are plenty of things that we don't know. So,
that's the first thing to get out of the way; science is not a kind of know-it-all, we've
got it all taped. There are going to be, in the next few hundred years, new scientific
discoveries, new scientific insights, new scientific ideas, theories, which will be
mind-boggling. So, that's the first point. Now, he then went on to things like love and--
>>Steve: Alienation.
>>Richard: alienation--
>>Steve: Suffering and the reality of death.
>>Richard: suffering. Ok, now these are, of course, not immediately understandable by
science in detail. Just as when I look at a computer, I don't actually understand every
detail of how it's doing what it, what it is doing. However, that doesn't mean that
anything mystical is going on. That passage you read to me is obscurantus rubbish because
it implies that that which is complicated and therefore, hard to understand, is therefore
in principle, impossible to understand, which means there's got to be something supernatural
going on. Supernatural means nothing. It explains nothing. It's a cop-out.
[end of clip]
>>Steve: And that is all. Thank you.
[applause]
And I am happy to take question, comments. I understand that I think you need to speak
into the microphone here, if you wanna do that. So.
>>Male member #1: I was actually just wondering with, it seems like in the political discourse
lately there's a lot of religious questions or conclusions being drawn. And it sounds
like they're very different from the questions and conclusions of the people that you interviewed,
even the more religious ones. So, I was wondering if you ever spoke with them about that, or
if they had any comments on how it's shaped what's going on these days?
>>Steve: Well, to some degree I think you can't avoid it. I mean, I find how religion
enters the political discourse to usually not be, not be very interesting because it's
just, it raises all of these gut reactions. I will say that I think if you wanna trace
why there is so much interest and attention to the so-called new atheist in recent years
of, most prominently, Dawkins and Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, I really
think a lot of that is a reaction to 9/11 and they will say that. In effect, Sam Harris
will say that the reason that he wrote his first book, The End of Faith, was explicitly
a reaction to his horror of the motivation of the people who threw the, who flew the
planes into the Twin Towers. And also the reaction among a lot of Americans to use religious
language in the, immediately the post 9/11 era. I mean, going back to George W. Bush,
talking about the Axis of Evil, so, I mean, it would start, religious language was clearly
entering the political discourse there and the other piece of this is if you're an aspiring
presidential candidate, you gotta cite your religious credentials. You sorta have to show
that you, if not actually go to church, you are respectful of religion, I mean, you're
gonna be in trouble if you don't. In fact, a few years ago, there was a Congressman,
Pete Stark in California, who actually made news because he was apparently the first national
politician who ever came out and said he was an atheist, which is astonishing when you
think about it. So, I mean, it's a very loaded question here. The questions that I'm interested
in are more the intellectual questions and it's really the, I mean, on one level it's
clear that you can reconcile science and religion. I mean, you can say you believe everything
about modern science and you also believe in God. The question is does that hold up
intellectually? I mean, that's really what I'm interested in. I mean, and that's why
I go through a lot of these different dimensions and I think there are different answers depending
on what specifically, what the question is you're asking. So, I mean, there are, there
are a certain set of issues that come up if you're talking about the mind and the brain;
consciousness. I mean, those are sort of neuroscience questions as well as philosophy of mind questions.
There are different questions that come up in cosmology; origins of the universe, the
Big Bang. And then there are all kinds of different questions that come up in evolution,
in, are we, is it just an accident that we're here and then there are also separate religious
questions as well. I mean, a big question is how do you read the Bible or the Koran?
How do you read a sacred text? And, I mean, it's obvious that you cannot read that literally
if you're going to accept modern science. Ok, if you don't read it literally, how do
you read it? And those are, that's, that's a really complicated subject and so, I have
several, I didn't go into that in the talk here, but there are several people who kind
of wrestle with that question. I have a Muslim astrophysicist who talks about that; who's
an observant Muslim, but he would also say he doesn't believe in miracles and, but he
has a very interesting nuance take on his understanding of Muhammad and where his visions
came from. And Elaine Pagels, the Gnostic Gospels scholar who I played a very short
clip from her and really her project is to try to go back to the early, a lot of the
early Christian texts and to interpret them without resorting to supernatural explanations.
So, unlike Francis Collins, for instance, who would say that if you're gonna be a Christian
you have to believe in the virgin birth, you have to believe in the literal resurrection
of Jesus, she would say no. You can look at, depending on which text you look at, you can
read some of those and the stories of the resurrection and you could say people felt
something there; they didn't necessarily see anything. And that's, I mean if you think
about it that, there are huge implications there and for all those people who want to
embrace Christianity. Maybe that's the church they grew up in, but stumble over that because
it's, they just can't wrap their heads around what they would perceive to be the dogma that's
thrown at them and so, there are these different ways of interpreting it. There was the, there's
another person in my book, John Haught, who's a Catholic theologian at Georgetown; he would
say that if you had a camera at the resurrection it wouldn't have shown anything. That was,
that's beyond science and this, he's a Catholic theologian and he would say that this is not
that unorthodox a view. So anyway, this is, it's really interesting and complicated when
you start digging down into a lot of these issues.
>>Male member #2: I just had a really quick question. So, what was, from all these conversations,
a conclusion that you got for yourself? And then, is this going to lead you to do something
in the future to continue with this work because this seems like the first step. So, what's
next for you?
>>Steve: Very good questions. I would say, well, just a little bit of background about
me. I was raised in a congregational church, which never really did much for me, frankly.
So, I stopped going around, I dunno, when I was 12 or 13 or so. And I've never gone
to church again other than the occasional Christmas service. I don't meditate or pray.
I'm a pretty secular person. I'm also someone who, I have a little bit of religion envy
in me and I am, I guess I look for the sacred. I mean, I wanna have some sense of the sacred
in my life, but how do I get that without the religious dogma that a lot of organized
religions have. And that's what led me to this project and that's why I'm particularly
drawn to the people who are really wrestling with some of these fundamental ideas about
how do we define religion? How do we define God? I mean, you start asking people, I mean,
I don't even ask my closest friends, "What do you think about God?" That's, you just
have to be a little careful about going there, but I get to ask these people I interview
about that. I mean, that's the great thing about being a radio interviewer and they kinda
have to answer me when the microphone is sitting right in front of them. And it's just, it's
tough to get a handle on that and so, I'm, I guess I'm searching for ways. I would call
myself a lapsed Christian who's not a strict materialist. How's that for a double negative?
So, someone who's out there searching for something; I'm not exactly sure what it is.
I'm definitely not in the strict atheist camp and I'm not your agnostic really, I'm not
even sure what that means and I don't think that really describes me very well. I think
I'm something else. And in terms of where this might lead me, I'm not sure. I still
do interviews on the radio on these subjects. I just interviewed Sam Harris about his new
book, The Moral Landscape, where he makes this argument that we can come up with moral
arguments based strictly on science, obviously not religion. I think he can make a few arguments
like that. I think it's limited how far you can go.
I've thought about if I were to do a follow-up book right now, I might do something that
would be a little on some of the issues I've touched on here, but it might be having to
do more specifically with people who invoke nature; the nature spirituality intersection
there. And there's a fascinating new book by an animist philosopher named David Abram,
called Becoming Animal, which is, he's someone who has hung out with a lot of shamans in
Latin America and Asia and he's sleight of hand magician as well. And he actually sees
his connection as a magician to, there's something similar between that and what shamans do in
a lot of traditional practices, cultures. He would say it's all about disorienting us
and taking us to another conceptual space and again, he's not invoking God anywhere
here. He's not really invoking anything supernatural, but he is saying there seems to some sort
of other dimension there. Anyway, it's like I find that very interesting and I'm also
interested in, this is gonna seem like a total nonsequitor here, but I don't know if you
know the fantasy writer Neil Gaiman, so, who wrote Coraline and American Gods, and there
was just a big event, in fact, out near where I live in Madison at House on the Rock, this
weird touristy attraction about an hour from Madison. He set a key scene in his book American
Gods there, sort of like the birth of modern mythology, American mythology, at this tourist
trap in the middle of Wisconsin and he says, "This is like, this is the creation of a home
grown mythology." And it so, what he's trying to do in his work is bring a sense of enchantment
of saying there's stuff that's going on underneath the surface there. There's magic in a way.
You don't necessarily have to invoke the supernatural here, but there are different ways of looking
at the world and I'm very drawn to that. I don't know if that makes any sense, but sort
of a roundabout way of getting at this.
>>Male member #3: Sorry, I came in late. I just have a question, though. Have you seen
any scientific examples in the religious books, the Torah, Bible or Koran, of things that
are explained there prior to when we know humans discovered it, quote unquote? Are there
examples--
>>Steve: Oh, sure, there are all kind of--
>>member #3: For example, like in the Koran, there are examples of embryology--
>>Steve: Right.
>>member #3: orbits of planets and stuff like that before supposedly they were known about?
So, are there examples that you know?
>>Steve: There are lots, I mean, actually, in Islam, I'm not an expert on Islam, but
I can talk about this a little bit. The Muslim astrophysicist, who I just mentioned, he talks
about how this is this huge thing in the Muslim world of looking to the Koran, or looking
to some of those original scriptures and trying to say, "Oh, look, this is what was said about."
Well, there's the creation story of Adam. You know, that Adam of Adam and Eve was created
out of dust. I mean, that's the idea in the Koran and so, I mean, you can go through a
lot of this and this just infuriates this guy who I interviewed. I mean, this is just
nonsense to say, to try to go back and look at clues that maybe something was said in
the Bible or the Koran that would somehow show that these sacred texts understood science
before modern scientists have come to that. And I'll just, lemme, lemme tell you a little
story in fact, about Islam. Not quite on your question, but there is a really fascinating
movement in the Islamic world; a creationist movement. So, we tend to think of creationism
as a distinctively American phenomenon and actually, it's a huge growing movement throughout
the Muslim world. And there's a guy named Harun Yahya, that's his pen name; his real
name is Adnan Oktar, who's in Istanbul and he is the leading Islamic creationist. And
he has a media empire and he's, he puts out, he and his organization, he has maybe a few
hundred people, in Turkey, they put out all this literature, really high-gloss books and
videos and all of this stuff, and it is spread throughout, not just Turkey, throughout the
Muslim world in Muslim communities, in Europe and America and he's a reclusive figure, too.
And I was in Istanbul actually, a couple of years ago, and I went and interviewed him
and it was a bizarre experience I have to say. First of all, he is, well, he's been,
he's actually been convicted of a crime of running an extortion gang and he is, he's
not in prison right now. He's appealing the decision and he's got very powerful friends
and enemies in Turkey and so, I thought, "Well, this is, I have to see what this Islamic creationist,
what would that be like?" And so, I set up this interview with him and one of his people
came to my hotel and picked me up and drove me across Islam at ten o'clock, I mean, across
Istanbul, ten o'clock at night and they, this, the driver pulled at one point off the road
and in hopped the translator cause Harun Yahya doesn't speak English and these two guys started
having this friendly argument about one of them has BBC English, the other has more Turkish
English, which is better for picking up girls and I was thinking, "This is not really my
idea of an Islamic creationist." And then I finally get out to Harun Yahya's house and
it's this really modern house with huge plasma TV screen, swimming pool out the back through
these glass doors and then the weirdest thing of all was I walk into the house and it's
a stage set. There are these three klieg lights, video cameras, and they were gonna tape my
interview, which is what they ended up doing. So, I had my little radio thing and they have
all these TV cameras there and then, so when I started the interview, and he was very gracious.
I mean, they're all very gracious when I was doing this interview and so, he, I asked,
"So, how could all the evolutionary biologists be wrong?" And he said, "Well, they're controlled
by the Masons." And I said, "Wow, that's, I think they'd be a little surprised to hear
that they're controlled by the Masons." And he said, "Well, that's cause the Masons keep
everything secret." And then he went on to say that he equated the Darwinists with a
Satanic cult and he said they're in league with fascists and communists and, but they
breed like mosquitoes in a pond. And I was, this was not my usual kind of interview that
I did. I'm thinking, "Wow, where can I go with this?" And then at one point, I asked
him, "So, how would you assess your influence?" And then he pulled out a loose-leaf notebook
and he had clippings, cause he gets a lot of media attention, and so he read articles
from Liberacion, I mean, various leading European newspapers and magazines. They were all quoting
him saying "Darwinism is on the run," and what I realized is what he wants is publicity.
And even bad publicity is good publicity for him, which led to some moral quandaries about
what should I do with this story? But yet, on the other hand, I came away thinking that
he is making inroads; he's got huge influence, he and his little empire, the media empire
there. And if you don't say anything, they will go, they go around to various countries
and they tell the Muslims there that you can't accept evolution, you, modern science is on
the wrong track. And there are obviously other people who just, I mean, there are lots of
people, Muslim intellectuals, who would disagree with that, but one of the key differences
between say, creationism in the Islamic world and creationism in America is it's, here it's
huge, I mean there are lots of people who are creationists, but it's a subculture still.
I mean, it's not official culture. If you are a creationist, it's, with maybe a few
exceptions with some of our elected officials, I mean, you have to be a little careful about
how you talk about that. You don't have to be that careful. I mean, it's perfectly accepted
in a lot of Islamic countries to be upfront about creationism and just to say that evolution
is nonsense. So, it's, and that's a battle that will play out more. It's more of an issue
right now in Turkey because they have this peculiar history with their old president
Ataturk, who was the secular figure. So, evolution has been taught for decades in Turkey. Hasn't
been taught in a lot of other Muslim countries and so they haven't really come to the big
evolution debate which probably will happen as they build up their science and technology
infrastructure. Anything else?
[pause]
Ok, thank you very much.
[applause]