It's always a pleasure to introduce my USC students to The Sacred Depths of Nature, the elegant, witty and wise book by fellow blogger, Ursula Goodenough.
Each year, I get a new perspective.
Sacred Depths takes us on a cosmological journey from the Big Bang through present day — a contemporary, science-based narrative of how things came to be the way they are, how life works, how it got awareness, got sex, got death.
It is a deeply spiritual book that seeks in the natural world not just awe, but also a kind of religious cosmology — non-theistic, for certain, but just as certainly, religious in feeling.
My students are inevitably moved both by the science and the spirituality.
This year, one, after allowing that Ursula's views almost directly reflected her own, added a question I've heard before. It essentially boils down to: Why bother? It is an attitude shared by most of my colleagues in science and science writing both. Science is so obviously awe-inspiring and so full of spirit and mystery in its own right, why put religion into the mix at all?
One reason is that there is certainly a strong cultural belief out there that squeezes science of all emotion.
"The scientists fear it's a slippery slope," one student said this year, referring to a friend who said learning the details of biological mechanisms had taken the mystery away for him. Mystery doesn't belong in science, according to this view. Let emotion into the mix, and next thing we know, we'll be worshipping crystals or worse.
This attitude has led to a certain militant atheism in some quarters that cuts any talk of spirituality off at the knees — even if the talk is, as Ursula calls her view, non-theistic. Science has no place for softies or sentiment; the cutting edge has a hard edge; there must be zero tolerance for any kind of feeling at all. Scientists are supposed to think, but not care.
"What a strange misconception has been taught to people," my late mentor Frank Oppenheimer used to say. "They have been taught that one cannot be disciplined enough to discover the truth unless one is indifferent to it. Actually, there is no point in looking for the truth unless what it is makes a difference."
Or as George Sarton put it in his History of Science: "There are blood and tears in geometry as well as in art.... It would be very foolish to claim that a good poem or a beautiful statue is more humanistic or more inspiring than a scientific discovery; it all depends upon the relation obtaining between them and you."
It seems both futile and pointless to run away from the fact that science is a human endeavor, part of human culture, at various times both pushed ahead and held back by human imagination, foibles, misperceptions, passion, genius, needs, wants, emotions.
(It also has a strong belief system — based on proof by evidence — which is what makes science so strong and lasting.)
So in a sense, Ursula's book in a counterweight to that all-too-common dry and lifeless view of science — as hardware rather than software.
But Sacred Depths is also much more.
We are in desperate need of a shared planetary ethic, Ursula reminds us. It's the only way we will be able to deal with nuclear weapons or climate change, hunger or pollution, infectious disease or human rights.
"If religious emotions can be elicited by natural reality — and I believe they can," she writes, "then the story of Nature has the potential to serve as the cosmos for the global ethos that we need to articulate."
And that's why, like it or not, we need to stop being afraid of slippery slopes, even if it means getting banged up a bit along the way. We'll get nowhere without embracing both the human side of science and the science of being human.