Some of the biggest philosophical and ethical questions of this century may be raised on scientific frontiers — as we gain a better understanding of the deep structure of space and time and the wilder “microworld.” Astrophysicist Martin Rees paints a fascinating picture of how we might be changed by what we do not yet know:
"If science teaches me anything, it teaches me that even simple things like an atom are fairly hard to understand. And that makes me skeptical of anyone who claims to have the last word or complete understanding of any deep aspect of reality."
Atheists and believers alike will find something useful in this conversation. I promise.
"Religion for Atheists” is Alain de Botton’s prescription for people who don’t believe, but may respect and miss experiences of faith. This cradle-atheist is dissatisfied with popular dismissals of religion, and he’s giving voice to a new way.
He says that the most boring question you can ask of any religion is whether it is true. But how to live, how to die, what is good, and what is bad — these are questions religion has sophisticated ways of addressing. And he feels that secular society has emptied public spaces of religious messaging, only to fill them with commercial proselytizing that may impoverish us morally. And so Alain de Botton has created something called The School of Life, where people young and old explore ritual, community, beauty and wisdom.
We had to cut quite a few stellar moments from Krista Tippett’s conversation with theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss for the radio show and podcast. He’s a devoted atheist who has some provocative things to say about religion, the Higgs field, our country’s literacy about science and how it should be talked about in the same way as we discuss film or the arts.
Our unedited interview with him allows for the fullest listening, and it’s definitely worth your time.
~Trent Gilliss, senior editor
We get a fair number of people asking us to include more overt atheists in our weekly public radio program and podcast. If you’re one of those listeners, this week’s conversation with theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss will be right up your alley.
He’s an energetic, witty thinker in the New Atheist movement who takes aim — fairly or unfairly — at religious believers. But, more importantly, his way of thinking about science as an integral part of our cultural formation and how many of us are let off the hook all-too-easily when we don’t know basic scientific principles.
His latest book is A Universe from Nothing: Why There is Something Rather than Nothing. And if you’re at all a sci-fi fan, then The Physics of Star Trek is a great read for you.
~Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Mathematics, Purpose, and Truth: The World Feels More Spacious
by Krista Tippett, host
I picked up Janna Levin’s novel off a table at a bookstore, drawn to it initially perhaps because we had just completed our show with Paul Collins and Jennifer Elder on autism. Mathematician Alan Turing — known as the father of modern computing — is one of the autistic personalities who was mentioned in that interview. I was immediately taken by Janna Levin’s lush prose and the alluring, provocative ideas that she brings to life through human stories in space and time.
A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines sounds depths I had never considered before, between mathematical truths and great existential questions. It does so by probing the parallel lives and ideas of Turing and another pivotal 20th-century mathematician, Kurt Gödel. Turing’s discoveries were made possible in part by Gödel, who shook the worlds of mathematics, philosophy, and logic in 1931 with his “incompleteness theorems.” They demonstrated that some mathematical truths can never be proven. Or, as Gödel says in Janna Levin’s novel, “Mathematics is perfect. But it is not complete. To see some truths you must stand outside and look in.” This held unsettling scientific and human implications; it posited hard limits to what we can ever logically, definitively know.
Janna Levin is an atheist, if we care to categorize her. And while that simple fact informs our conversation along with her exquisite intelligence and her mathematical training, we cover territory that can’t be bounded by such definitions. Janna Levin’s most certain “faith” is in the conviction that we can agree on basic realities described by mathematics — that 1 plus 1 will always equal 2. Putting God into that equation, or barring God from it, is not her concern. Yet this conversation is a beautiful example of the deep complementarity of religious and scientific questions, if not of answers. The ideas and questions Janna Levin lives and breathes open my mind to new ways of wondering about purpose, meaning, and ultimate reality.
There is much in her thought that I struggle to comprehend and will continue to ponder. I’m intrigued, at the same time, by echoes with the wisdom of ordinary life. Gödel’s idea that there are some truths we can only see at an angle — by standing outside, looking in — is a fact even in the work I do, of speaking of faith. The deepest truths are usually impossible to see and articulate straight on.
And I feel a kindred pull to Janna Levin’s delight and passion in the great narrative of the world and humanity, epitomized in these lines from her book that we read in the show:
"I am looking on benches and streets, in logic and code. I am looking in the form of truth stripped to the bone. Truth that lives independently of us, that exists out there in the world. Hard and unsentimental. I am ready to accept truth no matter how alarming it turns out to be. Even if it proves incompleteness and the limits of human reason. Even if it proves we are not free."
Of all the ideas Janna Levin presents, the most provocative and disturbing, perhaps, is her doubt that there is free will in human existence at all. She cannot be sure that we are not utterly determined by brilliant principles of physics and biology. Yet she cleaves more fiercely in the face of this belief to the reality of her love of her children and her hopes and dreams for them. She sees “evidence of our purpose” in figures like Gödel and Turing, even though they did not the find the clarity in life that they wrested from mathematics on all our behalf.
Paradoxically, perhaps, the world feels more spacious to me after this conversation with Janna Levin — even, to use her words, if it suggests incompleteness and the limits of human reason and faith; even if it suggests we are not free. She possesses a quality that keeps me interviewing scientists as often as a I can — a delight in beauty, a comfort with mystery, a limitless ambition for one’s grandest ideas combined with a humility about them that many religious people could learn from.
When an atheist dies it is wrong to wonder what is happening to them now that they are dead. Instead we might consider whether they lived well while alive. Had we been able to ask that one question to Christopher Hitchens as he died, it seems he would have answered that he had.
—Paul Brandeis Raushenbush, from his HuffPo piece, "When an Atheist Dies: Religious Reflections on Christopher Hitchens’ Death"
~Trent Gilliss, senior editor
I’m pretty much agnostic at this point in my life. But I find atheism just as hard to get my head around as I find fundamental Christianity. Because if there is no such thing as cosmic justice, what is the point of being good? That’s the one thing that no one has ever explained to me. Why shouldn’t I go rob a bank, especially if I’m smart enough to get away with it? What’s stopping me?
Now in its fourth season, the show traces the moral evolution of Walter White (played by Bryan Cranston), a middle-aged chemistry teacher who becomes a meth maker after he’s diagnosed with lung cancer. Gilligan’s intent for the character was to transform “Mr. Chips into Scarface.”
(photo courtesy of AMC)
~by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer
What Confucianism and Pentecostalism Have in Common
by Susan Leem, associate producer
Dogma, well at least its noted absence, has made its way into two of our recent shows. And it is non-dogma itself that binds two very disparate belief systems. Astrophysicist Lord Martin Rees avoids it, “I am not a person who adheres to any religious dogma.” And so did flamboyant preacher Aimee Semple McPherson as she embraced Pentecostalism, a non-dogmatic and fast-growing denomination of Christianity.
Though himself atheist, Martin Rees notes, “I can see a closer affinity with Confucianism and systems of thought like that.”
Confucianism is seeing a cultural revival in China with schools opening up to full capacity. A 31-foot statue of the ancient philosopher was unveiled a few months ago near Tiananmen Square in China’s capital, and then mysteriously disappeared. Confucian teachings were banned by Chairman Mao during the Cultural Revolution.
Pentecostals, attracting new followers in huge numbers globally, have also met resistance. At least one theological seminary has banned their own from “speaking in tongues” which demonstrates a direct experience of God as a gift of the Spirit.
These are two differing systems of belief from the other sides of the world. Both without dogma, but still with their own doctrine and staying power.
Cosmic Origami and What We Don’t Know: An Invitation to Picture Parallel Realities
by Krista Tippett, host
With Martin Rees as with other scientists I’ve interviewed across the years, I’m utterly intrigued by the language he uses to describe the stuff of his inquiry, the ideas that drive the work of his days — the deep structure of space and time, extreme phenomena in the cosmos.
He is an aristocrat in several senses in the world of British science. He’s a member of the House of Lords and holds the honorific title of Astronomer Royal. He recently ended a five-year term as president of The Royal Society, the august scientific fellowship to which Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, and Stephen Hawking have all belonged. Yet the great value of this conversation, I think, is Martin Rees’ skill in bringing the vast frontiers of science down to earth, so to speak. He sees them, and is able to describe them, as matters for public understanding and pondering.
So, for example, he uses an analogy that became the playful title of this show. As he discusses the possibility of parallel realities — once the stuff of science fiction — he asks us to picture worlds that might be out of our range of perception because they are tightly rolled up in space like origami. Or we might be like ants on a flat plane, assured that the contours of our known world are all there is. But just beyond of our range of perception, other planes also teem with life.
In his conversation with me as in the prestigious Reith Lectures he gave in Britain in 2010, Martin Rees is especially good at evoking the great puzzles that physics carried from the 20th century into our own. There are the predictable laws of physics at cosmic scales that Einstein brilliantly described. Then there is the wild, anything goes “microworld” of reality at the smallest scales — the scale where cosmic origami might happen. I remember another great physicist, Freeman Dyson, describing this as the difference between the rules of nature at the “mountaintops” and in the “rainforest.”
And I find a great and strange comfort in Martin Rees’ desire to loop in a third level of complexity that begs for some kind of unity with the other two — that of life. He makes the remarkable assertion that human beings are the most extreme complex phenomena in the cosmos by far. It is possible, he says, to say definitively true things about the workings of stars — but not to say anything that is even remotely definitively true about dieting or child care.
In fact, on scientific frontiers from cosmology to genetics, new and complicated ethical and philosophical questions are being raised that need deliberation precisely in relation to complex human life. In his Reith Lectures, he named a few: How will our lengthening life spans effect society? Who should access the readout of our personal genetic code? Should the law allow designer babies? Should we use nuclear power or wind farms?
For pursuing this kind of inquiry, Martin Rees was awarded the 2011 Templeton Prize for “an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works.” He took some sharp criticism from some scientists and atheists for accepting the prize.
In the spirit of full disclosure, On Being receives funding for some of our shows from the John Templeton Foundation. But what brought him to our attention, compellingly, is that Martin Rees himself is firmly atheist. He is in fact as little interested in science-religion dialogue as in science-religion battles. Rather, in his third way between the two, he sees religious people as essential allies in the philosophical and ethical challenges that are being raised on scientific frontiers.
I’m grateful for the language Martin Rees uses to describe the role he’s discovered along this path — a calling to be a “science citizen.” His is an eloquent voice for many of our listeners, I think, who find the labels of “atheist” and “agnostic” too narrow if they seem to rule out ethical and spiritual life, however broadly defined. And he helpfully points at practical starting points for non-religious and religious to pursue meaning and mystery in our age — together, and with humility all around.