What happens when scientific findings potentially lead us down ethically troubling roads? What’s the difference between science as a way to understand the world, and science as a tool for people to use, both for good and for ill? What happens as science and technology outpace our ethical frameworks — and is there a role for religion or theology in that conversation? If so, what is it?
On May 1st, Dr. Rebecca Newberger Goldstein and Sinai and Synapses Fellow Dr. Adam Pryor had a conversation about these interactions at the 92nd Street Y, followed by a Q&A moderated by Rabbi Geoffrey Mitelman. Below are two short excerpts of their thoughts, followed by the full video and transcript.
Presenter Dr. Rebecca Newberger Goldstein is a philosopher and an occasional novelist, and is currently a visiting professor of philosophy at New College of the Humanities in London. She graduated summa cum laude from Barnard College and received her Ph.D. from Princeton University in philosophy of science. She then returned to Barnard as a professor of philosophy. She is the author of ten books: Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Gödel was chosen by Science Magazine as among the best five science books of 2005, and Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity received the 2006 Koret International Award for Jewish Scholarship. Her latest book, Plato at The Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away was a Washington Post Best Book of the Year. Dr. Goldstein is a MacArthur Fellow and has received the 2015 National Humanities Medal, among numerous other honors.
Respondent Dr. Adam Pryor is a current Sinai and Synapses Fellow. He is Assistant Professor of Religion and Director of Core Education at Bethany College in Lindsborg, KS. Having taken his Ph.D. at the Graduate Theological Union, Dr. Pryor’s primary research concerns issues related to emergence theory, the origins of life, and reconceptualizations of embodiment. His current research, which he began as a member of the Center of Theological Inquiry’s recent research program on the societal implications of astrobiology, considers how astrobiology effects understandings of God. He is concerned with how scientific concepts and problems can serve as a table around which interfaith dialogue can take places, since scientific research pushes us to ask personal, existential questions of deep religious significance, whether this is intended or not.Read Transcript
Rabbi Geoff Mitelman: So welcome everybody, and thank you all for coming this evening. My name is Rabbi Geoff Mitelman. I am the Founding Director of Sinai and Synapses, an organization that bridges the worlds of religion and science. In our world today, with deepening mistrust of the other, increasing polarization, and even skepticism of science, it’s becoming more and more crucial for us to understand the challenges that we face personally and societally and globally, and to discover wisdom from as many sources as we can. Before I introduce our speakers and our event here tonight, I need to thank a few people. First, thank you to the 92nd Street Y for hosting us this evening, especially Brian and Gabrielle, who helped coordinate a lot of this. It is a cultural institution, so it’s an honor to be able to be here.
Next, I need to thank our Sinai and Synapses Fellows. You are a select group of clergy and scientists and writers who are dedicated to elevating the public discourse, and presented so many of the deep questions that you saw tonight. Hopefully you had a chance to be able to talk with at least some of them.
I need to thank our program administrator, Rachel Pincus, who not only designed – give her a round of applause as well. She not only designed all the posters, she helps make sure everything runs smoothly. Rachel, raise your hand for a second – because Rachel is also going to be handing out pencils throughout. If you have questions throughout the evening, you may notice that you may have index cards. Throughout the evening, if you have questions, raise your hand. Rachel will come over with a pencil, and you can write it down so that we can keep the evening flowing as well. I also need to thank the Issachar Fund, which has been a primary supporter of the fellowship, and they, along with other donors, have helped make this evening possible. So thank you.
Sinai and Synapses is also housed at Clal, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, whose mission is to make Jewish a public good. And they have not only been Sinai and Synapses’ fiscal sponsor, they have provided incredible intellectual and strategic guidance. And so, I need to thank Rabbis Brad Hirschfield and Irwin Kula along with Aliza Kaplan, Shelli Aderman and Janet Kirscheimer, as well as the Clal board, many of whom are here tonight. So let’s give Clal a round of applause.
So this evening, we in the Jewish community are observing Yom Ha’Shoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. And we moderns embrace science. We love science. Science has given us insights into the world, it’s helped us change the landscape we live in, and it’s the best way we know to understand our universe. And yet, as the Shoah exemplified, it is also a tool used not just for good, but also for tremendous evil. Indeed, religion, too, has been used for both the benefit and the detriment of humankind.
Many of us may have ambivalent feelings about religion, and how it’s used and has been used in history. And so, should we think of science in the same way? Or, is it a totally different way of thinking about the world and thinking about the thorny ethical questions that we face, especially today, whether that’s fake news, or the advent of genetic engineering, or the rise of artificial intelligence? We’re honored to have two intellectual heavyweights here with us to help us think about these questions. So as I said, as they speak, if you have questions, raise your hand – Rachel will give you a pencil and you can write those here.
So I want to introduce our speakers here. Our presenter to my left is Dr. Rebecca Newberger Goldstein. She is a philosopher and an occasional novelist, currently a visiting professor of philosophy at New College of the Humanities in London. She graduated summa cum laude from Barnard College and received her Ph.D. from Princeton University in philosophy of science. She then returned to Barnard as a professor of philosophy, and is the author of ten books: Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Gödel was chosen by Science Magazine as among the best five science books of 2005, and Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity received the 2006 Koret International Award for Jewish Scholarship. Her latest book, Plato at The Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away, was a Washington Post Best Book of the Year. Dr. Goldstein is a MacArthur Fellow and has received the 2015 National Humanities Medal, among numerous other honors.
So please join with me in welcoming Dr Rebecca Goldstein. I’ll let you start, and then I’ll introduce Adam.
Rebecca Goldstein: Thank you. All right. Okay, so I want to approach this question by dividing up two different kinds of questions. Every philosopher has to begin by dividing up questions.
And Rabbi Mitelman, Geoff, you had touched on one kind of problem, which arises in the applications of science. Sometimes technology, which is the application of scientific truth, the practical application of scientific theories, can go very, very wrong – and that raises certain ethical questions.
But there is also another bunch of questions that have to do with scientific truth itself. Are there certain truths that we just shouldn’t know? And I think that’s a question that we can raise. I see it one way, but I can see the other side as well. So I want to be able to touch on both of these sorts of questions as regards both scientific truth itself and the applications of scientific truth – which is roughly what we mean by technology, where it’s much more obvious that things can go very, very wrong.
I find it useful to think about both of these questions by remembering something that Albert Einstein perhaps said – it’s sort of like Mark Twain, anything that’s smart in science gets attributed to Einstein – but anyway, it was smart enough for Einstein to say it. And it was: “There are two things that we know about that are infinite: the universe and human stupidity. And I’m not sure about the universe.” It has the right touch to be Einstein, except that he thought the universe was finite too, so – that’s where the doubt comes in.
But the point of the possible Einstein quote is this: Our intuitions, as also our inclinations, our biases, are often very, very wrong, and very, very misguided. And fortunately, we have science to correct us about these things. Science – it’s an amazing thing that happened around about the 17th century. You know, there had been a kind of proto-science before that, but around about the 17th century, something extraordinary happened, with empirical observation becoming wedded to mathematical description. And the teleological explanations that had governed the Aristotelian system were given up, and instead we get this other way, a non-teleological way, of trying to explain what we see around us. And its proof is how well it has worked, how much knowledge about the laws of nature this non-teleological way of explanation has yielded. You wouldn’t have known a priori that it was going to be so powerful. In some sense, teleological explanation comes much more naturally. Storytelling, right, it’s how we explain one another and ourselves in terms of goals to be accomplished. But trying to explain the workings of nature in that way didn’t get us very far.
Once Galileo and people like Descartes, Spinoza, Huygens, and then the great Sir Isaac Newton, developed this method, then our knowledge of nature really took off. It’s been amazing, because what it does, science as it’s been practiced since the 17th century, is that it enlists Reality to be our collaborator. That’s an incredible thing – science brings Reality itself into the process; this is what the philosopher Karl Popper had called falsifiability. And because of this requirement of science, namely that anything can be falsified by Reality itself, and we have to set up our experiments to give Reality the chance to have its say, some of our deepest intuitions have been corrected. Intuitions about space and time, causality, individuation, teleology – have been corrected. So you think that simultaneity is absolute. It seems to you intuitively obvious that it doesn’t matter which coordinate system you use to measure two events. I mean, simultaneity is simultaneity. Well, we’ll just see about that! Voila – Einstein’s theory of special relativity upsets our intuitions about simultaneity. “Well, we’ll just see about that!” is the motto of science, in some sense.
And because of this, because a scientific theory has to be in principle falsifiable, science has been able to correct such very deep intuitions that we have. So let’s hear it for us homo sapiens! This is great, that we have somehow stumbled on this way of explanation, and it’s a big, marvelous, counter-intuitive world that we’ve thereby discovered. And some of what we’ve learned through science corrects even our intuitions about ourselves, which are much more emotionally fraught than causality and space and time and individuation–intuitions such as that we’re really separate from the rest of the animal kingdom, that it took a special creation to get to us. That intuition, too, much more emotionally laden, has been corrected by means of science.
So in general, we want to know what Reality is like. After all, we named ourselves homo sapiens, right, from “to know,” from the Latin sapere. Homo being man, of course. (laughter) Can’t get away from it. The sexism’s in the language. But we’re a species that, in general, would like know the truth about the world around us. The question is whether or not it’s always good for us to know the truth. In general, yes, of course, better to know. Reality is that which continues to exist, even when you don’t believe in it. And if you get Reality wrong, it’s going to kick you in the ass, right. So in general, it’s a good thing to know about Reality, it’s useful, it’s got adaptive value. And in addition to its usefulness, it’s also wonderful. It’s one of the best ways to spend your life. It gives you a big vision, putting you in touch with something very, very large. What could be larger than Reality itself? And struggling to know Reality opens up your mind and teaches you a kind of epistemic humility. This is all good stuff.
But there are certain truths, perhaps, or certain paths of research, that one could question whether we ought to pursue them. I’ll bring up a very current case. There’s a postdoc at University of Cambridge whose contract with University of Cambridge has just been – Noah Carl was his name, his contract has just been ended by Cambridge. He was doing research on race, and genetic intelligence, and criminality, and making certain claims – perhaps careful claims, perhaps not. And of course, all scientifically sophisticated people recognize the limited implications of whatever statistical correlations are found. They’re statistical, meaning you can’t use them to judge individuals. But we also know that not all people are scientifically sophisticated, and they misuse statistics. And we also know that people use research like this for their own nefarious ends. And we know very, very well what those nefarious ends are. And sure enough, this particular researcher’s findings—whether they’re carefully reached or not I can’t say, I haven’t looked at them—but regardless, they’ve already been used to draw insidious conclusions, hurtful conclusions, that I can’t see conducing to general human flourishing.
So maybe his research was good. I don’t know. But do we have to actually know anything about these correlations, even if they exist? I can see a lot of harm coming from such research, and not much good. I feel almost like I’m blaspheming by saying that. All things being equal, I believe in knowing, but I raise this question, because in our human world of biases, all things are not equal.
Another example. A few years ago, three non-Jewish researchers at the University of Utah had published a theory as to – I don’t know any other way of putting this – “why Jews are so smart.” You know, you look at the statistics and the number of Nobel Prizes, blah blah blah, about 56 percent – actually I can’t remember the percentage, but it’s statistically anomalous, the high number of Nobel Prizes among the Jewish population. And so what’s going on here? What’s the explanation?
And so these three researchers came up with a theory, an empirical theory, that there was a genetic change that was adaptive, during from about 800 CE to the 15th century, in helping Jews flourish in the few professions that they were allowed to practice. Moneylending, selling, and something else to do with money – I can’t remember, banking or something. And so there was this very, very quick kind of adaptation, which usually leads – when there’s one gene changed very quickly, it usually leads to some downsides. And so they had also theorized that the genetic diseases, Tay-Sachs and others – one that both me and my husband are both carriers for, familial dysautonomia – was the downside of this relatively quick evolutionary change of one gene to help Jews in the few professions open to them.
It was a theory about innate superior intelligence, at least of a certain kind, among the Jewish population, and it made a great number of people, including me, very nervous. Again, there seems too much potential for nefarious purposes to be singling out Jews as having some kind of special intelligence that developed out of their being forced into professions having to do with money. And I think it was just dropped, and it hasn’t been taken further, even though you could get some testable predictions out of it: for example, testing whether people, like my husband and me, who don’t have one of these diseases but are carriers, test in a statistically significant way for higher intelligence. But nobody is particularly interested in testing the theory. Better to let the theory drop. Because again, I don’t know that we really want to go there.
So there are certain – now, you may disagree with this, I’m just sort of raising this as a question that I find very difficult, because I really do believe that it’s a good thing for us to research widely, and to follow the results wherever they lead. But there are certain areas of research where you might question what is generally good, biases being what they are. So I put that question out to you. I think it’s a difficult ethical question.
And then of course, just very quickly, let’s turn to the question not of scientific theories, but rather applications – in other words, technology – and consider some questions.
There is now, in the field of biology, a tremendous amount of discussion going on because of what’s going on with gene editing, CRISPR. And CRISPR – there are two types, I don’t know if you’ve studied these things together. Yes? Okay, just very very quickly. There are two types of gene editing. There is somatic editing, where something’s wrong in a particular gene, and you can cut it out and replace it and thereby cure diseases. It’s an incredible thing. This could be very helpful for diseases that depend on the malfunction of one gene, like sickle-cell anemia, or cystic fibrosis. It’s a tremendously hopeful process. There could be designer cancer therapies, where it’s ignoring genes on cells that are being changed.
And then there’s something else called germ-line human genome editing. And here, one edits the gene – it’s really like editing with a word processor. I mean, you delete and insert; this is what CRISPR is all about. But in germ-line editing you’re editing very young cells, in very young embryos. And so these will be inheritable changes. Their offspring will inherit these changes.
One hears the word “designer babies” being floated around. We could, in theory, change genes for people to be smarter, or you know, taller. I don’t know why that amounts to any kind of superiority, but some people think it does. (laughter) Smarter, I’d go for.
And here, too, we broach on certain possibilities, certain applications that will possibly become realizable, that can be quite queasy-making. The possibilities have made the scientists themselves uneasy. There’s a tremendous amount of interdisciplinary and cross-cultural discussion going on before we just plunge ahead into thinking of trying to make offspring genetically superior, and also changing embryos so that whatever changes are made will be inheritable. I noticed there was a talk that your group sponsored about playing God, and yes, this is very close to playing God. In any case, we want a lot of discussion before this takes place.
And then, I think it was last year, a Chinese scientist, Jiankui He, announced that he had gone ahead with this germ-line editing, and had brought two embryos to term. And there was a tremendous outcry. There were conferences at Harvard about this and all over the world. And the scientists are taking this very seriously, and they’re bringing philosophers, theologians, lots of people, in to talk about these questions.
In the field of AI, robotics also – there are a lot of philosophers involved in the questions that are raised in this field as well, because we’re getting very, very close to the ultimate philosophical question (well, there are so many ultimate questions, they’re all ultimate, all the questions in philosophy are ultimate) but some of the possibilities that are now within sight raise the question of what it is to be human, and what is it to value humans, and what is it that we value humans for – if we can make a really smart baby, you know, are we going to go ahead and do it? Are we thereby saying that smarter people matter more, that they have more value, as human beings? These possibilities are quite different from being able to edit a gene so that a person won’t suffer from sickle cell anemia. If we go ahead and let such procedures happen, then our ideas about what we value humans for could change. In other words, instead of letting our ethical thinking provide guidelines for our procedures, we’d let the procedures do our ethical thinking for us.
I want to mention the cultural differences here. It had been in China that the two embryos had been edited and brought to term. The father had HIV/AIDS and wanted to ensure that his children wouldn’t carry the disease. There is a tremendous shame and disgrace in China in carrying HIV/AIDS. And so, in our necessary interdisciplinary discussions, we have to be sensitive to cross-cultural differences, too. It’s been proposed to set up international, cross-cultural, interdisciplinary guidelines as we consider this new technology that’s become possible. And that seems to me fantastic, you know, before we plunge ahead with it all, that we explore it beforehand, in all its complexity.
And I just want to mention very, very briefly, you know, to me, these questions of application, I only think of them in terms of human flourishing. That’s the only thing I think of. What is going to produce human flourishing? And that’s the questions that we have to try to figure out, which is difficult enough. So, people would bring in – it often comes from my religious friends – a different criterion, which is human dignity. 1I’ve always found human dignity a squishy concept, and this squishiness shows up when you consider its history, that it’s been used, in the past, to reject anything any procedure that is startlingly new, no matter how it helps individuals to flourish. It was used, for example, to argue against artificial insemination. It’s been used against stem cell research. I was going to go on and say tonight that, given its squishiness, we ought to just reject it outright as an additional criterion for adjudicating which procedures to go ahead with, and that we ought to rely solely on considerations of human flourishing.
And that any of these tamperings close to what it is to be human, is somehow – we have to get clear on what human dignity is. Well, I guess I sort of did say that that was true, because we wanted to talk about what it is makes humans valuable, which is a way of talking about human dignity. Anyway, so there’s kind of this different criterion brought in here, that’s not just about human flourishing. 2But it could perhaps be said against me that, by highlighting how some of these procedures might actually change our ethical views regarding humans—that they could carry, for example, implications that smart humans are more valuable than less smart humans, that athletic humans are more valuable than klutzes—I’m ipso facto appealing to something like human dignity, over and above human flourishing. I can see how such an argument could be presented. I’m still inclined to think that, in essence, we’re still speaking about human flourishing, without bringing in an additional value, because one of the things that is necessary for human flourishing is our valuing all humans because they are human, and not because of the specific characteristics, or talents, that they have. In other words, I’d argue that insofar as the concept of human dignity can be clarified, it’s simply entailed by the concept of human flourishing. But that would take a complicated argument, and I can see how the argument against it could go.
OK, that’s enough. Thank you.
Geoff Mitelman: Thank you, there’s a lot to think about here and to respond to, and luckily we have someone who can do that!
So I’m pleased to introduce Dr. Adam Pryor, who is a current Sinai and Synapses Fellow. He is an assistant professor of religion and Director of Core Education at Bethany College in Lindsborg, Kansas. Having taken his PhD at the Graduate Theological Union, Dr. Pryor’s primary research concerns issues related to emergence theory, the origins of life, and re-conceptualization of embodiment. His current research, which he began as a member of the Center for Theological Inquiry’s recent research program on the societal implications of astrobiology, considers how astrobiology affects understandings of God. And so, please join with me in welcoming Dr. Adam Pryor.
Adam Pyor: You’ll forgive me that I’m somewhat formal, it’s in your interest that I am. (laughter)
I was getting ready to come here and I was riding my bicycle to school with my daughter. She’s six years old, she’s in kindergarten. The ride to school is about 3/4 of a mile, so it’s a wonderful time to hear all of the things that are happening and that I don’t know about – usually things that I should have known about. And she’s pretty clearly concerned that I’m incompetent. (laughter) So she asked why it was that I was leaving again, and I said “well, I have to go, it’s part of my job, I’m going to give a talk,” she said “people are going to come and hear you!?”
And I said “no, I mean there’s someone else speaking and I’m responding.” So she says “that makes sense.”
She says “what are you talking about?,” I said, “I’m supposed to talk about ‘can good science really go bad?’”. And she was silent for a little while as we pummeled along, and then she looked over at me, nearly ran me off the road as she did, and said “that’s a bad question.”
So, Geoff, don’t worry, six-year-olds do not approve of your question. (laughter) She said, “it’s not a good question, because science helps us. Science got us to space. Science is what my teacher tells me at school. Science is really important.”
And there’s a little bit to which I thought she was right. I kind of wanted to know “Could good science really go bad?”. I think there’s a certain strand of thinking in us that says it can’t be – that good science produces good knowledge, and good knowledge is always infused with an appreciation of the ethical and the moral, the beautiful. And something about that just prevents it from going bad. Good science would never go bad. It’s just bad science.
But I don’t think I know many scientists who would be real happy with that explanation. Not sure they’d comfortable with that at all. The premises of observation, hypothesizing, questioning, experimenting, is to investigate the nature of the world as it’s given to us, apart from any of these moral or these aesthetic categories. Those pesky questions of the humanities have no place in the rigorous investigations of science. Scientific knowledge is neither good nor bad. It simply is. Good science is the kind pursuit, according to the strictest methods, of the most replicable experiments. It’s knowledge as pure unadulterated technique.
And there’s something about that that sounded kind of wrong too. Certainly, the process of making scientific discoveries, uncovering new insights, this all involves highly skilled, honed, even apprenticed, techniques. But science today also represents a certain kind of worldview, whether it’s reductionist or emergentist, biophysical or meteorological. Science touches the very fabric of how we understand our existence and our persistence in the world.
And as science has gained this traction in shaping our worldviews, it’s become inextricably entangled with the philosophical and the religious positions we hold. And it’s in this tangled web of worldviews and epistemologies [that] it’s easy to imagine that philosophy and religion are just outmoded forms of knowledge production. The techniques, these disciplines, have just been replaced by the better questions that science asks.
Controlling the kinds of questions we ask, preventing us from pushing natural explanations as far as they might go – science thinks religion and philosophy are just flat-out dangerous. These static fields don’t do anything anymore – oracles we should only consult when we arrive at some classic paradox, usually of an ethical sort. And when we need some history of those logical possible explanations, call the philosopher or the religion scholar in.
So for me, I think there’s maybe no greater debt that I owe to Professor Goldstein than that she’s thoroughly problematized this kind of narrative of natural science as progressive, and philosophy as just some repository of knowledge in some eternal unchanging form. Like science, what constitutes good reasoning and beautiful knowledge in philosophy is also changing. It’s pressed forward by methodologically investigating the world in ways that we previously thought unimaginable. As I read her and hear her tonight, I think she’s advocating for a constructive philosophy, not mere philosophical history that canonizes our favorite philosopher as the eternal purveyor of the right account.
Instead, philosophy is about a quest for living a meaningful life. And it’s a task that’s constantly changing. I think this is the view that we find in Plato at the Googleplex, when she comments on Plato’s pursuit of immortality in the Timaeus, an immortality of beauty that comes from having our lives and, I quote her, “infused with infinity, or finitude infinitized.”
In this process, our lives are opened up to all that’s not ourselves through the very discovery of the best of reasons. And it’s in the presence of this harmonious beauty that such opening to these best reasons reveals that our knowledge and love are expanded, so that we glimpse living the good life, where the good and the true and the beautiful penetrates our very finitude.
Good science has the effect of opening us up. It infuses us with infinity. It constitutes all that is not ourselves. It presses us beyond ourselves into a state of awe. It puts us in harmony with one another in ways we could not possibly imagine.
But it goes bad when it’s just mere techne, mere technical reason that loses sight of this aesthetic element of harmony that expands our knowledge. Writing about Spinoza, Professor Newberger also mentions the more expansive oneself, the less the sense of self-importance. This high-mindedness of Spinoza, the infinitization of Plato, it works because, and I quote again, “having stood beside oneself and viewed the world as it is, unwarped by one’s identity within it, one will understand that there is nothing of special significance about one’s own endeavor to persist and flourish that doesn’t pertain to others’s same endeavors.”
Good science goes bad when it ceases to decenter us from our place in the world, and that doesn’t just happen by technical know-how. Good science can go bad when it loses that transformative connection to the deep yearning for harmonious beauty that inspires my concern for the flourishing of my neighbor. And today, Yom Ha’Shoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, we remember how important it is to strive against science pursued without respect for affects? and beauty.
So what about religion? It’s really what I do. Our religious practices and our rituals or, God forbid, we should talk about theology? (That somebody is a theologian, because they laughed. They know what that’s like).
If we follow Newberger’s lead, perhaps religion, too, has a role to play like that of philosophy. If it’s pursued in a particular way, I might even dare say that Plato, especially Plato of the Timaeus and not the Phaedo, is maybe even a little bit religious.
So my second question would follow this intuition: is religion changing? Does religious knowledge, religious practice, theological reflection, does it continue to change and evolve in the face of our experiences of the world? Or did religion lose its dynamism somewhere along the way?
I want to answer these questions with a very cautious “maybe.” (laughter) So what I mean is that this sort of discourse we imagine religion engages in, it deeply affects whether or not we imagine there to be new theological or religious knowledge. And I’m particularly interested in theology understood as a form of public discourse. So I’m thinking, particularly, of public theology. And I know that’s a problematic term in lots of ways, but I want to simply note that public theology assumes that theology seeks to foster a wider societal set of goods that extend well beyond the confessional proclivities of any particular given community. A key to this approach, though, is that to borrow from a set of well-established categories in interfaith dialogue, notably what Krister Stendhal described as “Holy Envy,” and what I would call an accompanying sense of “holy humility.”
For a public theology to work in the way I am describing, particularly in an ever-increasingly pluralistic context, we have to have a deep appreciation for the distinct ways that religions other than our own may speak to the existential questions we have. And we must cherish an openness that recognizes how other traditions that aren’t my own may better address those questions than my own tradition.
If it’s pursued this way, a public theology cuts against the tendency to make theology just a simple apologetic defense. It’s all too easy to understand the worldview construction of theology, and particularly projects in theology and science, as ways of ensuring that we hold on to religious doctrines and metaphysical schemas in the face of a growing body of scientific knowledge.
But I would argue that public-facing theology has to commit to interpreting its religious symbols, however these might appear, however they might have developed, so that when they’re acted upon by human beings, they’ll establish new, powerful moods and motivations that make sense, that help us make sense of how to order our existence in congruence with those things that matter most, with ultimacy.
So, what’s all that have to do with science going bad? Well, I want to say that good religion facilitates good science. It facilitates an experience of opening us, beyond ourselves, to harmony and beauty, by addressing and calming the anxieties we feel – the anxieties we feel at losing a sense of our self and our personhood in the face of being opened up to the infinite. That’s scary.
For me, out of my Christian tradition, it’s symbols like living in the image of God, or the incarnation, that become indispensable. And though I hope to constantly have these symbols be enriched and maybe even supplanted by the religious insights of my neighbors, khalifa 3stewardship and haram 4sanctuary, tikkun olam 5healing the world and dama 6self-restraint – change the ways and challenge and expand the symbols of my own tradition.
And so far as these symbols aid us in being turned outward toward the infinitization of our finitude, even as science de-centers our place in the world, then religion can provide a critical check on good science turning bad. These religious symbols help us tell the story of our humanity in a way that can prevent us from being disconnected, from not pursuing the well-being of my neighbor.
When I think of my daughter, and I go back home, and she asks me what it is that I said, I hope that the conversation I can relate back to her is that there are people who agree – science is good. Just as long as we’re careful about who it’s helping. Thanks.
Geoff Mitelman: A lot to think about, and with the interplay of science and religion, I’m thinking of actually something that I learned from our meeting. Our Sinai and Synapses Fellows just had a 3-day meeting learning from each other. And one of our fellows, Connor Wood, was talking about science and religion and cultural resiliency – about commodification and religion, and science becoming professionalized and then commodified.
And I’m really struck by the question that you raised of flourishing, which is also what’s going to be the metric of flourishing – who’s going to decide what’s flourishing and what’s not. But an interesting historical piece about the relationship of religion and science is that – and you probably would know, if you can correct me if I’m wrong on this. But up until about the 1700s or 1800s, theology was professionalized, and science was sort of amateur. And thinking about the Founding Fathers, who played with all sorts of scientific pieces, theology was done by the professionals, and science was done by the amateurs, who were just sort of playing around.
And probably in the 17, 18, 1900s, somewhere in that range, there was a flip. And now science has become very, very professionalized, and in some ways even silo-ized, where each department is looking at its own piece. And theology has become very amateur. And it’s very hard to be able to find good theology. And often when we’re talking, particularly about religion, we’re often creating a strawman argument of religion. And so I’m wondering how the professionalization of either science or religion – and philosophy, which is the intersection of those as well – how that creates the decision of what’s good and what’s bad and who decides.
Rebecca Newberger Goldstein: Actually, there were professional scientists that emerged in the 17th century, you know, Galileo and Newton and Huygens. I mean, they were professional, they were involved in universities.
Yeah, the question of human flourishing, which I guess we both have referenced, it is, to a certain extent, an empirical question. It’s at least partly for science to be able to study. Take, for example, human freedom and the question of how much freedom is good for people’s happiness, their sense of well-being. It’s interesting that there is some evidence now that there’s a kind of sweet spot of freedom. You want just enough and no more. You have too many options and you can just [freak out]. [Too many options] can be very anxiety-provoking. And, too, we can empirically establish that people flourish more in societies where women are given equal rights, allowed to drive and radical things like that. You know, we have lots of societies, and we can measure the differences in the wellbeing of their citizens and thereby arrive at conclusions regarding human flourishing. We have metrics of well-being across many, many societies.
So to some extent this is a scientific question. There are aspects of flourishing that might be individually variable. People from a religious orientation might think that a relationship with God is something that’s required for human flourishing. Well, you know, we could actually study that too. Do people who have relationships with God, or feel that they do, or who live within religious communities, report higher standards of well-being? In fact, they do, people in religious communities do report higher measurements of well-being. Do I [as a pretty thorough secularist], recognize this? Yes, science is science. Yes, they do report higher senses of well-being.
Adam Pryor: And I think the question of who gets to define flourishing really matters, right. So I think this was really brought home for me, the more that I’ve been were doing work on astrobiology. I talked to a really wonderful astrobiologist. We were talking about climate change, and sort of how it works, and he said “yeah, human flourishing, that’s great. You know would be really good? Planetary flourishing. That would really be a better definition in the news.” And I was like, “oh, that’s really interesting, I can happily put planetary flourishing in.” And he goes, “Yeah, you know how you can get planetary flourishing? You get rid of humans.” (laughter)
Rebecca Newberger Goldstein: This is very true. I have met people in the green movement who are really quite anti-human. Because [humans are] really screwing up the planet.
Adam Pryor: It’s a legitimate position that one can take. I mean, I do actually want to take it very, very seriously right now. But I think this is sort of that ambiguity in terms of how we define flourishing, and who gets to define it, and why. And in what context the definition of flourishing works really matters.
Rebecca Newberger Goldstein: It’s a question of whether human flourishing ought to be privileged, somehow made special, privileged over other kinds of flourishing. And things are changing in that regard as well. I think that animal flourishing, for example, is very, very important. The philosopher Peter Singer has done a tremendous amount for [furthering our appreciation of the rights of other species.] You know, to me, these are philosophical questions. It’s why – I don’t know about theology, it seems to me that philosophical questions can never be left out of the picture, and one way of approaching philosophical questions is through theology. I think it can have its input. But these are, at heart, philosophical questions. Whose mattering matters?
Adam Pryor: Right. And maybe some of this is to say, the way in which theological answers respond to those philosophical questions – we could play with that a little bit, but the basis in a sort of philosophical question, whether it’s from a scientific or theological or a philosophical framework, we’re really asking philosophical questions from the start.
Rebecca Newberger Goldstein: Just a very, very quick point – but I had started out in physics, I went through my undergraduate training in physics. And I had already applied to graduate school in physics and gotten into the graduate programs I wanted. And I was taking this advanced course in quantum mechanics. And in those days, everything was the so-called Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics, which meant that there were certain questions you were not allowed to ask. “Shut up and calculate,” that was what you were told. And that’s not why I was studying physics. I was studying physics because I wanted to study the nature of Reality. I wanted to be infinitized. “Shut up and calculate” – pssh.
And I just bothered my professor so much, and he finally said to me, “Why don’t you go over to the Philosophy Department and find somebody there to bug? These are the kind of meaningless questions that philosophers ask.” And I did. And this is the sad thing that happened to me. (laughter)
But you know, there too, now physicists have somewhat changed and broadened their notion, because they were pushed by philosophers. Now we have the multiverse. I mean, we don’t just have this Reality, we have the multiverse. That’s too much reality for me, to tell you the truth.
But in any case, you know, it was philosophers pushing against the Copenhagen Interpretation. So even within science, when you’re asking, you know, “how are we supposed to do science,” “what are the questions that are permissible for a scientist to take on,” you’ve got to confront philosophy. You’ve got to confront the philosophy of physics, the philosophy of biology, all sorts of philosophical questions.
Geoff Mitelman: So I want to throw in a question building off of this, which is an interesting piece, because as we’re thinking about this question of good and bad, when good science goes bad, the questions of good and bad are at the very least philosophical, and often religious or theological. So even the conversation is entering the world of philosophy. And the challenges, particularly in the more liberal religious tradition, is that it’s simply becoming almost a patina of secular values, of being able to say “I’m going to use religious language, but it’s grounded in secularism.” Which I think is not necessarily a bad thing. We’re moving into a world where, somebody that I think you know very well – your husband – talks about the importance of humanism, and human flourishing. And so the question is: what’s an example of religious and theology progressing that isn’t just religion or theology adopting secular views or secular values? And I would ask, from your perspective, is that necessarily a bad thing?
Rebecca Newberger Goldstein: (turning to Adam) Well, I mean my worldview is thoroughly secular, so I turn to you to address the theological aspect of this. I don’t know what you…
Adam: … as I stare off into space and try to think of an example of the problem that I posed…
So, here’s where I would push. The application of doctrine from various theological traditions (broadly conceived, right, theological traditions that might be from different religious traditions), the questions of doctrine apply to particular political problems today, right.
Are there ways in which making an appeal – (I’ll use my favorite, I like the image of God because I’m thinking about that one a lot lately) – are there ways in which what it means to be in the image of God can be put forward in ways that differ from traditional answers that we’ve given, that then have impact for political decisions that we would make?
So I’ll give my sort of quick example here, right. I live in Kansas, okay, so you know, the hotbed of liberalism (laughter). And I’m teaching a course on political theology in Kansas to various college students. And mostly, what we’ve discovered is we’re deeply concerned about people who are elected, but we’d like to help them. This is sort of what I’ve noticed from my students, right. They really want to help. And so if they’re going to help, what they want to do is find language that takes things that are important to those people – and in many cases, with my various senators in Kansas, deeply troubling sort of notions of doctrine – and then to push the ways in which that’s used, so that they can help those folks come to different conclusions. That, to my mind, is productively constructing new religious knowledge. Maybe not brand new, but new religious knowledge in a way that has distinct impacts on particular bills, in this case.
To me, that’s also what religion and theologians should be doing per se as their job, rather than speaking into specific communities and sort of clarifying as an internal game. The goal is to speak out to the public, and help folks make use of these symbols that have been sort of taken up in often very secular contexts as well.
Geoff Mitelman: Rebecca, I’ve got a question for you that you’ll be able to answer, unless you’d like to respond theologically. Because this is a question that very much plays into your presentation here as well, as you talked about the question of “Should something be studied or not?” and those the implications. And there’s even a meta-question that’s being asked here, which is really “who decides what should be studied or not?,” because even that may even be the most important question. And there’s also an element of politics – and you talk about culture, and how do we get more people whose voices are often not in that conversation? The Personal Genetics Education Project at Harvard does a lot of work around “how do we talk about genetic engineering to talk to people in minority populations?” How do you talk to people who, when they hear genetics, they’re thinking about Tuskeegee? And so, how do we determine who should be making these determinations in the first place?
Rebecca Newberger Goldstein: The philosophers, of course. (laughs) Yeah, no, it’s a very, very good question, and because so much of this is – I mean, what I was thinking about, again, relating it to that apocryphal Einstein quote, you know, is the “infinite stupidity of us.” I mean, we rarely get things, we’re hasty, we see things from our own points of view. The science itself can be very, very good, but you know, when it feeds these ever-ready ego-driven Kansas senators’ kinds of worldviews, you’re wary.
[Yes, these questions of where we should go and where we shouldn’t go] are very culturally embedded. There was, of course, the view that evolution itself, the theory of natural selection, was going to lead to terrible things. And so [the theory] was suppressed, and that was dangerous. It can be a dangerous idea to decide that certain ideas are dangerous and then to suppress them.
Basically, I have a kind of “let Reality speak” attitude towards these things. But we do have to be wary of certain kinds of questions. And who decides? – well usually, it seems like it’s peer review, what gets published. Like when this thing happened with the germ-line editing. He might have been a good researcher, but nevertheless he was fired. The community of scientists, and of people who think about these things, including the philosophers of science, said “No, you’ve gone too far before we’ve decided on how far you ought to go.” So you know, I think that the community of experts – lots of people should be brought into this, theologians, philosophers, historians as well as scientists.
In general, I wish that scientists were better trained in the larger philosophical questions. I think their science would be better. It all comes down to: why is it so important for us to know Reality? Reality doesn’t care. Reality is going to get along just fine, whether we know it or not. It’s we who care about this, and it is a glorious endeavor, you know, it does open up and widen one’s life, and give it a great deal of meaning. There’s meaning to be found there.
But ultimately this is a human endeavor – it’s always a human endeavor. Everything’s an endeavor. Science itself can sometimes go bad, because we’re not thinking about what science is really for. We’re not thinking of it in the context of its ultimate humanity, of our trying to make sense of ourselves, and sense of the world, and sense of our relationship to the world. We all want to try to get our bearings, whether it’s through philosophy or through science or through theology. I think more than our being creatures of knowledge – Homo sapiens – we are creatures who just are trying to get our bearings. We come into this world, we don’t know what it is, we don’t know what we are, what’s in store for us, what we’re supposed to do with these lives of ours. To be human is to ask these questions. And science at least gives us some of the answers to these questions, but not all of the answers.
Geoff Mitelman: Well, one of my – he wasn’t my professor in rabbinical school, but he was a friend of mine’s professor, and he quoted this line from – I mean, it was a philosopher. And it blew my friend’s mind, and I think it’s very true, which is that “our brains did not evolve to help us find truth, our brains evolved to help us survive.” And what we’re able to do – there’s a limitation to what we finite human beings are able to understand. And it’s not necessarily designed to find the most accurate perspective there.
Rebecca Newberger Goldstein: And that’s filled with biases. And it didn’t even help us to survive – it helped our genes to replicate to the next generation, so basically [to] keep us alive long enough for us to mate, and then we go obsolete, we’re not needed anymore. It’s the genes that are running the show, we’re the puppets.
Geoff Mitelman: Yeah. And you raise an interesting question that links here, because in a lot of ways we’re talking about the three big philosophical questions today. We’re talking about truth – we’re talking about science as a source of truth – in terms of ethics, of what’s good and what’s bad – and you’ve touched on beauty a little bit.
I actually like, at least from my religious perspective or my spiritual perspective, meaning. Because truth and science, you know, are going to get along whether we know it or not. The truth is whatever the truth is. Ethics is much more of an interplay, and there are certain things that I think we tend to say are right and wrong, and there are some where there’s a gray area. Meaning is a lot more fungible and a lot more personal. And so this is the question here, of “what’s the role of deep historical knowledge to public epistemology? To what extent is our job to show the change of meaning across time and culture?”
Adam Pryor: When is our job not to show that? I mean, to which I just want to say yes, that is our job, is really to to take these widened frames of reference and try to increasingly make meaning out of these – I think, instances that seemingly push us further and further and further to the fringes of what’s relevant, right. You know, every week that goes by, there’s a new scientific discovery that pushes me further out to the edge of thinking of myself as the sort of center of the world – whether it’s the center of the world I live in, or the center of this universe, right. We’re constantly sort of being displaced. So how it is that we come to grips and then make meaning out of that experience is crucial. I’m not sure what it means to be human if you’re not engaged in that process – well, that’s not fair – there are ways that we could do that. But I do think it’s a really crucial category, right.
Rebecca Newberger Goldstein: Yeah. I mean, it is a kind of privilege for your life to be stable enough, and to be well fed enough, and all of these things, that you worry about what’s the meaning of it all, right. For so much of history – and in places still in the world where people are just struggling to see another dawn – it’s when we have pretty much taken care of that just-survival thing that we ask these questions, “what’s it all for?”
Adam Pryor: There’s got to certain relaxation on pressures to exist. But once that happens, these questions have to be asked.
Rebecca Newberger Goldstein: There it is. There it is. That’s what it means to be human.
Geoff Mitelman: So I think this is going to the last–
Adam Pryor: I think we’re going to solve what it means to be human! (laughter)
Geoff Mitelman: So I’m a gigantic Yankees fan – and I know he actually said this – Yogi Berra said “it’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future.” And of the things that come up, both, I think, in science and religion and just in our day-to-day life, of unanticipated consequences. We move in one direction and something spins out in one way – that’s one of the beauties of science, is that. You know, the reason that evolution is so much better than 6-day creationism is that, as someone said – there are all sorts of reasons – but one is that evolution and biology explains, creationism explains it away. And science opens new questions, whereas “God did it,” that’s not constructive, it’s not productive in any kind of way.
So where do you see potential ways in which either good science can go bad – and we’ll end on a hopeful note, of where good science can go good. Even though you know that it may be a totally unintended consequence, where are some moments when you see good science going well in the next 5 to 10 to 15 years?
Rebecca Newberger Goldstein: Hmm. Well yeah, I mean, the unpredictability of the applications are just so mind-boggling. I remember when the internet was created, and it was like – I was so excited. Free knowledge, accessible to all. What could be better? I don’t have to leave my summer home and I can do all my research. I don’t have to go to a library. The accessibility of it all seemed uncompromisingly wonderful, it just went with every intuition that I have, you know, that it was wonderful. Who knew it was going to destroy democracy? Who knew, right? (laughter) I mean, the ever-present small-mindedness of humans – certain others, not us, of course, but the potential for smallness, for meanness, for ill purposes, is just – it’s always there. And so, I don’t know, but it’s one of the great heartaches of my life that this happened to the Internet. I was a real Internet idealist. And now I’m very upset about it.
But I do think great things are happening in scientific knowledge, because – I’m going to go back to physics, but one of the things that physicists don’t really like to talk about is that our two most powerful and most empirically predictive theories, general relativity and quantum mechanics, are irreconcilable, actually. There are inconsistencies in trying to put both of them together. And so, there’s some other wonderful theory just waiting to be discovered that will reconcile them. That’s of course what Einstein was looking for, the Unified Field Theory. He didn’t get to it, and we haven’t gotten to it. But it awaits us. Something’s going to give, relativity or quantum mechanics, and it’s going to blow our minds. It’s going to be amazing. Because quantum mechanics and relativity theory already blew our minds. All of our intuitions turned out to be wrong. So what this new conception – if we’re smart enough and, you know, if we don’t kill ourselves first over something dumb, or they don’t cut off all of our research money – also dumb (laughter), you know, great things await us in the scientific description of reality, beyond anything we can imagine. And so I’m extremely excited, and I just want to live long enough to see it.
Adam Pryor: It’s hard for me to pick. I am fundamentally a pessimist who assumes it’s going to go bad. But if I’m going to pick a piece of good science that I think is going to go good, I think I would pick CRISPR, despite all the sort of things that have gone on lately around it. And I think I will put my money on CRISPR around the idea of food production. That this becomes a fundamental piece of how it is that as climate starts to change, we maybe find ways to avoid massive-scale famines, right. And this is a sort of interesting piece, where we have these sort of competing aspects of science and technology both causing the problem and perhaps providing some solutions.
Geoff Mitelman: Thank you. Well, before we thank our presenters here, just a couple of housekeeping pieces. One is by signing up – we would like to invite you to be able to sign up for our weekly e-mail list, Sinai and Synapses. Once a week we send out content, and we will be sending the video of this out as well over the next couple of weeks. You can always opt out – one of those wonderful MailChimp things is that you can opt out – but I figure that this is the kind of conversation you would like to be part of, so thank you for being here.
I’m going to ask immediately after this for the Clal board and the Sinai and Synapses Fellows to step out in the lobby to the left where the table is and meet there for the next part of our evening. And for everybody else, please join with me in thanking Dr. Rebecca Newberger Goldstein and Dr. Adam Pryor.
|↑1||I’ve always found human dignity a squishy concept, and this squishiness shows up when you consider its history, that it’s been used, in the past, to reject anything any procedure that is startlingly new, no matter how it helps individuals to flourish. It was used, for example, to argue against artificial insemination. It’s been used against stem cell research. I was going to go on and say tonight that, given its squishiness, we ought to just reject it outright as an additional criterion for adjudicating which procedures to go ahead with, and that we ought to rely solely on considerations of human flourishing.|
|↑2||But it could perhaps be said against me that, by highlighting how some of these procedures might actually change our ethical views regarding humans—that they could carry, for example, implications that smart humans are more valuable than less smart humans, that athletic humans are more valuable than klutzes—I’m ipso facto appealing to something like human dignity, over and above human flourishing. I can see how such an argument could be presented. I’m still inclined to think that, in essence, we’re still speaking about human flourishing, without bringing in an additional value, because one of the things that is necessary for human flourishing is our valuing all humans because they are human, and not because of the specific characteristics, or talents, that they have. In other words, I’d argue that insofar as the concept of human dignity can be clarified, it’s simply entailed by the concept of human flourishing. But that would take a complicated argument, and I can see how the argument against it could go.|
|↑5||healing the world|