Science and its societal implications

This is a sequel to the GEOL 1122 reading on "What is Science?". However, it is NOT part of the reading assignment for GEOL 1122, and in fact it may be better if GEOL 1122 students STOP before reading further.

    The "What is Science?" readings to which this page is linked, and especially the table of "Scientific Ideas That Challenged Fundamental Notions of the World", concluded that

science hasn't been kind to humanity's notion of itself. Science consistently has been the bearer of bad news: that humans don't live on an earth at the center of the universe and thus at the focus of divine attention; that the world existed long before humans, so that any deity was seemingly quite content with a human-less world for eons; and that humans weren't created in the image of a deity but evolved from a succession of animals whose form and lifestyle was not suggestive of divinity.

     So what does this mean for humans and human society?


Does this mean that there is no god?
     No, it doesn't mean that. The results of science suggest that there isn't a god who created the world 6000 years ago, and that there isn't a god who made humans in his or her own image as his or her own special point of attention. Practical experience (e.g., the Holocaust, which took millions of human lives; the 1999 Turkish earthquake that took roughly 40,000 lives; Hurricane Mitch, which took about 11,000 lives in Honduras) suggests that there isn't a god who watches over humans to protect us all. However, none of this precludes the existence of a deity - an as-yet-unseen very knowledgeable being in some way cognizant of, and perhaps even responsible for, what we call the universe. No one will ever be able to prove that there is no god, or are no gods.


If there is a god, what does all this tell us about him or her?
     Well, he or she probably doesn't look like an aged human being, if she or he existed billions of years before human beings. In fact, if we follow the traditional logic that he or she created life in his or her image, then we might have to conclude from the fossil record that this god looks like a bacterium. Seemingly we should not follow that particular line of traditional logic.


What would be this god's values?
     If this is a god responsible for the origin of life as we know it, it's a god that set life in motion with very primitive life forms. Those life forms only later led to more complex life (eukaryotes, and then animals), and only relatively recently to mammals, and only very recently to bipedal mammals that burn fossil fuels.
     The implications of this might be that such a god would value all life forms, from bacteria to daffodils to bipedal mammals. If this sounds like touchy-feely environmentalism, bear in mind that it implies that eating broccoli would be as immoral as eating beef (and perhaps eating sprouts would be like eating veal). In fact, all matter in the universe would be equally sacred, having been created alike and only more recently cycled from mineral to biological, and perhaps back to mineral, forms.


So does this mean that humans are animals free from a moral code?
     No. It may mean that there isn't a god waiting to punish people for their trangressions against other people, against the universe, or against that god. However, humans are intelligent beings, which makes them responsible for their actions. Intelligence quickly leads to the realization that one cannot live in the midst of others without a code of behavior. That code usually is, "Do unto others as you would want them to do unto you", or at least "Don't do unto others things that you wouldn't want them to do unto you." No absence of a deity, or lack of attention from a deity, frees an intelligent life form from that code.


Can our lives have any meaning if we aren't the special children of a supreme being?
     Probably. To quote an anonymous commentator in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "What makes life worth living is caring about something, no matter what it is." That "something" may be human (for example, a spouse, a child, or children), it may be an institution (e.g., a university, an organization, a church, or a business), it may be a cause (the environment, civil rights, or care for the homeless), it may be an vocation or avocation (a job, an art, a craft, a sport, or a hobby, perhaps), or it may be something else. We're as special as we make ourselves to others. As Jethro Tull* put it, "It's only the giving that makes you what you are".


Does all this mean that there is no afterlife?
     Not necessarily. Science can find no evidence of an afterlife in which human consciousness survives after death of the body. That doesn't prove that there is no afterlife. Our scientific understanding of life does indeed suggest that humans have an origin no different than that of other life forms. Reconciliation of a belief in an afterlife with modern science might therefore require believing that all animals, or even all life forms, have an afterlife. Anyone willing to accept that, and willing to believe in something for which there is no evidence, can believe in an afterlife in which human consciousness survives after death of the body.

     More importantly, regardless whether one believes that there is an afterlife in which human consciousness survives after death of the body, it's obvious that we have an afterlife in the sense that our thoughts and the effects of our actions live on after we die. The ideas we teach and values we embody to our children, our friends, and our students will live on in them after we die. The institutions we build, and the effects they have, will continue to exist after we die. Even after we as individuals are no longer remembered, our messages and our contributions will survive in the descendants of our descendants, in the friends of our friends, and in the students of our students.

     In that sense, even though William Shakespeare, Thomas Jefferson, and Martin Luther King are all dead and may have had no soul that survived in a conscious afterlife, they all have had whopping afterlives. The same is clearly true for anyone now dead whose name you recognize, whose ideas you know, or whose actions affect your life. It's equally true for the deceased of whom you're oblivious - for the great-great-grandparents who instilled a sense of work and justice in your great-grandparents and grandparents and thus onward to you, for the teacher who inspired the teacher who inspired you to explore new ideas or take a new interest, for the ordinary citizen who voted for a bond initiative that raised his or her taxes so that the school in which you were educated could be built. All these people live on, perhaps not in a gauzy light-filled conscious afterlife, but in the world through which we pass each day. If we remember the coming of this afterlife of our thoughts and actions, there's little reason to fear a death that does not promise an afterlife in which human consciousness survives after death of the body.



*Wond'ring Aloud, Jethro Tull. Aqualung.

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