After a two-month hiatus, Science Sunday has returned! The UNCG Atheists, Agnostics & Skeptics host these meetings in order to encourage scientific literacy in the broader community, and to celebrate how modern science continues to shape our lives. So often, scientific explanations regarding the nature of our existence are popularly perceived as dull or even damaging to the potential beauty and meaning of one's life. But this needn't be the case! As evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins explains, "The feeling of awed wonder that science can give us is one of the highest experiences of which the human psyche is capable. It is a deep aesthetic passion to rank with the finest that music and poetry can deliver. It is truly one of the things that make life worth living and it does so, if anything, more effectively if it convinces us that the time we have for living is quite finite."
It is certainly true, however, that faith in the make-believe continues to give many people comfort when reality is at times cold, indifferent, or hostile. Yet while advances in our scientific understanding often confront us with many uncomfortable facts about our existence, we are also provided with much more effective tools for navigating through the indifference and hostility of nature. To consider one simple example: A more scientific understanding of our existence highlights human transience and mortality, but at the same time allows for advances in medicine that make it possible to live longer and healthier. Modern science does tend to undermine faith as an existential crutch, but it also gives us a much more reliable support system for managing life's obstacles and opportunities.
At last night's Science Sunday meeting, we watched the documentary The Secret You (BBC Horizon). This film serves as a brilliant primer on the contemporary scientific explorations into the nature of consciousness. In the religious culture of the Southern U.S., it is not uncommon to be bombarded with assertions that a creator god loves you, and will allow you to be tortured postmortem if you do not reciprocate said love. Arguments between theists and atheists tend to center around the existence of the supposed author of salvation/damnation: god. This documentary, however, challenges our understanding of the assumed object of salvation: you! What do you mean when you say "I"? What is the "you" that is supposedly loved? Is there a "you" that is separate from your body? from your brain? Does it even make sense to speak of an immaterial self, that could somehow persist once neural activity ceases? Are humans truly unique in having a sense of self? In The Secret You, Professor Marcus du Sautoy explores what modern science has to say about these questions... And the implications for some of our more comforting delusions are clear.