Being Human Is Different, Or What Science Asks Of Us : 13.7: Cosmos And Culture You don't have to be a scientist to appreciate the truth that it demands from humans.
NPR logo Being Human Is Different, Or What Science Asks Of Us

Being Human Is Different, Or What Science Asks Of Us

Do not deny our capacity for inspiration.  Do not deny our ability to reach beyond ourselves and find a call to a purpose higher than the daily truck of “getting” and “having”.  To do so would be to rob us of the very thing that makes us human, the essence of our heart, mind and spirit.

All week, we’ve had an extraordinary debate about science, scientists and ethics.  In light of the Goldman-Sachs case and the mess high finance has made of world finance, we asked if science offers a model for ethical self-policing that could be useful to other domains.  The debate then shifted to scientists themselves.  Are they more inherently ethical?  My fellow bloggers and I all answered with resounding “No!”  But, we argued, there was an profound ethic of truth telling in the process itself. 

The debate then shifted further to consider the value of science itself.  Does it offer humanity something more than a kind of useful “lying”?   Is it professional hubris to see science as one instance of what gives humanity, for all its flaws, a nobility that might just make us worth saving?

I do no need to be a painter to feel the transcendent specificity in Georgia O’Keefe’s giant flower canvases.  I do not need to be a poet to see a broader truth illuminated in the words of Maria Rainer Rilke.  I do not need to be a musician to feel a brush with the sacred when I listen to John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme.”  Likewise you do need to be a scientist to feel the call to something higher, something greater than yourself and the small details of your life, in the fruits of science. 

Watch the five-year-olds going through their dinosaur phase, follow the nine-year-olds as they get caught body and soul by the wonders of the planetarium, talk to the adult who emerges from a IMAX show on Hubble in 3D.  Science has the power to inspire and that inspiration would mean nothing if it did not include a sense that we can be more than we are: intellectually and ethically; as individuals and as a species.

Why do we single out and honor certain moments in the Space-Time of our collective history: Athens of Hellenistic Greece, the Tang Dynasty in China, Italy of the Renaissance, and France in the Enlightenment?  Something different, something singular rose up at these pinpoints on the map of the human spirit that sets them apart from, say, New Jersey in 1820 (It’s OK; I can say that; I am from New Jersey).  For all their failings, human beings in these moments lifted our collective vision and science was always inseparable strand of their accomplishments.

It is no accident that dreams of Utopia multiplied as science struggled to take its modern form centuries ago.  Science in its human context has always held the utopian dream even if those specific dreams were grossly flawed.  Collectively, in science we have always seen a hope for something better that included, but was not exclusive to, technological innovation.

Does science call us to a higher ethical standard as a process, a method and a practice? Without doubt!  By allowing us to the see the world more clearly on its own terms, it helps us find our place in the web of life and the grand architecture of creation. 

To miss this point is to turn your back on one the few fulcrums humanity has to lift us to a greater vision of compassion and wholeness.  To miss this is to have willfully developed a tin ear to the music of the spheres.

But, make no mistake: Science is not the sole means to hear this music.  It can be corrupted and used for all kinds of purposes that one might hope to avoid. Science or reason alone will not serve our great need.  We humans are complex and multi-faceted.  We have many paths to inspiration.  Who would deny the power of Jesus’ message of forgiveness, the Buddha’s vision of liberation, Gandhi’s example of compassion or Martin Luther King’s brave defense of human dignity?  There are many routes to wisdom and as we add another three billion people to the planet in the next few decades we are damn sure going to need them all.

Science does not reveal eternal understandings, but it’s a route to some kind of truth as manifested in an honest dialogue between humanity and nature.  There are other routes to other kinds of truths and perhaps they are all as proximate and human. 

So be it. 

Do not deny the power these can have to call on us to become something more than what we are now, to ask something more of ourselves as embodied creatures of feeling and thought.  Do not deny our capacity to be inspired by our routes to truth however flawed.  After all, you know what they say about the truth.

It can set you free.