David Grinspoon Interview


Joshua Mauldin:  You were recently at CTI for our fall Symposium on the societal implications of astrobiology. How did you find the dialogue with scholars in theology and philosophy? Any big questions you’ve been thinking about since the symposium ended?

David Grinspoon: It was a different kind of communication experience. I enjoyed it tremendously. Usually I am speaking either for other scientists, in our own technical language, or for a public, non-scholarly audience. This was neither – an audience of scholars who are non-scientists. So I tried not to assume any prior knowledge of the technical material, yet I knew I could go fast and assume a great deal of intellectual sophistication. The questions I got were challenging and honed right in on some very interesting questions at the edges of science and philosophy. The discussions over lunch with several of the scholars were also enlightening. I came home with a list of books and papers I need to read.

JM: You raised a fascinating question during the Symposium when you asked, “What do theologians mean by ‘God’?” Were you satisfied with the answers you received? Can you say more about why this question is of interest to you?

DG: At first I felt a little guilty about asking this question. During the first afternoon when the scholars were asking me questions related to my morning talk, one of them asked “Are there any questions you want to ask us?” and I realized that there was one, perhaps embarrassingly basic, question I was dying to ask. “What do you mean by ‘God’”? This was prompted by the fact that there are many in the scientific community – perhaps a minority but a very vocal minority – who are extremely hostile to the notion of God. They feel that all religion is nonsense, and that believers are childish and simple-minded. They believe that religion is responsible for a great deal of cruelty and oppression and an enemy to human progress. One prominent member of these “new atheists” even wrote a recent piece in the New Yorker entitled “Why all Scientists should be Militant Atheists.” Now, it has been my impression that what these super-atheists mean when they say the word “God” has very little in common with what is actually meant by religious scholars using this term. This feeling was reinforced by my experience  working at the Library of Congress as the Astrobiology Chair where all the religious scholars I met were very bright, sophisticated, learned, thoughtful people. These “new atheists” would have us believe that anybody pursuing theological inquiry is wasting their time on some sort of ancient superstitious nonsense. There’s a wide disconnect. I started to feel that these critics of God and religion are actually dismissing some other concept that has almost nothing to do with what these scholars are actually studying. In other words – they are railing against their own “straw man” version of religion. I got the sense that what I was observing was not so much an actual disagreement as a great misunderstanding, and that these radical atheists who feel they are defending science by critiquing “God” are actually criticizing their own notion of ‘God’, which has little in common with what these sophisticated scholars and believers mean by the term. So, I decided, why not ask?

I was gratified that nobody seemed offended by the question. In fact, they seemed grateful for it. Someone remarked that when religious scholars get together they never actually talk about what they mean by ‘God.’ What then followed was remarkably interesting to me: A long discussion of what is meant by ‘God’, with as many answers as there were people in the room. I took a lot of hurried notes on this. I now feel that I still don’t really understand the meaning of this word but that it is certainly deep, mysterious and complex. The “God critics” seem to think that believers all have some simplistic, literal interpretation of scripture – that they believe in “talking snakes” and that there is some guy up in low Earth orbit giving directions. But it strikes me now that ‘God’ is, for many, a description of some ineffable aspects of the universe and even a way of describing the nature of human consciousness, perhaps a way of approaching some deep philosophical questions which are arguably beyond science. It gave me a lot to think about. And it confirmed my sense that these “militant atheists” really don’t know what they are talking about when they talk about God. They criticize religion as being childish but they are the ones holding on to a simplistic notion of what religion is. They seem to think that all religion is fundamentalism.  Their narrow views are a strange sort of anti-religious fundamentalism. It made me wonder if these “skeptics” actually even disagree with the ideas I heard that afternoon, or if they have perhaps just never been exposed to them. I wonder what would happen if you got some of them in the room with this group.  But they would have to enter with open minds and hearts. I don’t know if that is possible.

JM: I’ve just watched a lecture you gave at the Library of Congress: Terra Sapiens: The Human Chapter in the History of Earth. Here you discuss the concept of the ‘Anthropocene.’ The anthropocene gives us a way to think about human life as part of the history of Earth over a long time scale. What is the value of thinking in this way?

DG: It’s another way of coming to grips with who we are and what role we are playing on this planet, and in this universe. If you look at the history of the planet and the different changes it has gone through, and you look at what is happening to Earth now, under our influence, then you realize that Earth is now undergoing a transition as profound as any in its history and that we ourselves are the agents of that transition. The evolution of life has caused huge planetary changes in the past.  Other species have altered the environment, and even caused mass extinctions of other life. But now life has somehow evolved cognitive systems, and some creatures have used this power of cognition to change their environments in such powerful ways that it is now changing the whole planet and affecting all life. Remarkably they have also used those cognitive systems to start discovering the history and state of their planet and predicting its future. What is happening now is unlike any other planetary transition, in that the agents of change actually have the ability – or at least the potential – to be aware of the changes they are causing, and to make choices based on this awareness. This gives us a huge new responsibility. But it should also be a source of great hope. We have the potential to see what we are doing, to see what is coming and to wake up and alter our behavior in a way that will allow life to continue to flourish.

JM: In the lecture you say that your own mentor Carl Sagan emphasized that science has brought forth of series of “Great Demotions,’ in which scientific discoveries have repeatedly undercut our conceits about the importance or centrality of humankind in the universe. Sagan saw this as one of the values of science, that it served to ‘demote’ human beings. First, I’m curious, why did he think of these demotions as a good thing? One could also see them as morally neutral, just facts about reality.

DG: He saw them as a liberation from ancient delusions. We used to think that the Earth was the entire universe.  Science allowed us to see the true proportion of space and time – that our planet is an extremely tiny part of a universe that is vast almost beyond comprehension, and that all of human history occupies a miniscule interval of time compared to the longevity of the Earth or the cosmos. We used to see ourselves as fundamentally separate from all other life.  Science showed us that we are fundamentally related to all other life. I think if you value truth you have to see these breakthroughs in knowledge as gains for humanity, even if our pride had to suffer for some of them.

JM: In contrast to Sagan, you now argue that in a sense the concept of the anthropocene is a reversal; it’s a kind of promotion of humanity. What do you mean by this?

DG: The “Great Demotions” were a series of realizations about how, contrary to intuition or biblical teachings, humanity was not the center of the story of Earth or life. The end point of this trajectory is believing we are completely peripheral and unimportant in the story of Earth. But now, with the anthropocene, we are realizing that, like it or not, we are indeed central to the narrative. We have become central.  Human actions are now equal in force to the other great forces of nature, and Earth is going through a transition that we are responsible for. If we are going to own up to these changes and gain the ability to act wisely, to use our powers carefully, then we have to acknowledge our role. We are, it turns out, not peripheral but central to the current chapter of Earth history. This is, in a sense, a “great promotion.” This idea makes people very uncomfortable. It makes me uncomfortable. But it is every bit as true as the “Great Demotions.”

JM: In the lecture you note that you’ve been an environmentalist for a long time, and you worry that there is a danger when environmentalists became misanthropes. As you say, “You can love the Earth without hating humanity.” You note that “We’re all in this together, and we need to have some positive visions of the future.” What are the dangers of an environmentalism that is misanthropic?

DG: Many people who are concerned about the planet, the biosphere, and our currently destructive role, seem to feel obligated to stress the worst case scenarios, to show humanity in the worst possible light. I understand this impulse. You want people to be shocked, to be alarmed, to wake up and realize what a mess we are in and how damaging we have been. But I think there is a danger in this constant drumbeat of misanthropy. We start to believe that this is our nature. It could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. People become fatalistic. If they become completely convinced that we are doomed then there is no motivation to change. I have seen this in some young people. I think we are morally obligated to show that humans are also cooperative, problem-solving innovators who have a unique ability to foresee the future and change course. We just have to learn how to do this on a global scale and we have not really even been trying this for too long. In fact global warming is really the first problem that has forced us to realize that we need to do so. This realization is just beginning to sink in. We need to promote visions of ourselves as being able to act in this way, not being doomed by our supposedly unchangeable destructive nature.

JM: You close your lecture on a hopeful note. You say that it very difficult to predict the future. There is much uncertainty, and where there is uncertainty there is room for hope—and choice. You claim there is room for faith in ourselves as human beings. ‘We are just getting started on this planet.’ Are there particular resources in human culture, the arts, philosophy, and so on, which provide resources for this kind of hopefulness regarding the human future?

DG: If you look at human history over very long timescales, over evolutionary timescales, you see that we have repeatedly been faced with existential challenges, and survived by refining our capacities to cooperate, communicate and innovate.  These are the capacities that make us human. Technology has given us frightening new powers that can be used for destruction but has also enhanced these human qualities, giving us new ways to communicate, store and transfer knowledge and ideas, and knitting us together around the world and across generations. Science, art and other aspects of learning and culture can all be seen as incredible trans-generational, globe-spanning enterprises that have survived and flourished through even the worst episodes of our histories. Now we are being tested in new ways and it is clear that only global responses to global challenges will see us through.  Perhaps in the nick of time we have new tools that may allow us to meet these new challenges.  A web of global communications unites us as never before. Our planet is ringed with a fleet of Earth observing satellites that give us a new picture of our home world as a singular, complex, changing, living entity. There is a slowly dawning awareness that we are all in this together. One does not even need to appeal to some high moral sense, only the fact that “enlightened self-interest” is more and more demanding that decisions be made with global consequences in mind. (although perhaps if self-interest gets enlightened enough, it does start to seem like actual enlightenment…?)

JM: How can scholars in the humanities and social sciences, as well as theology, contribute to questions regarding the societal implications of astrobiology?

DG: Astrobiology is a multi-disciplinary attempt to understand the distribution and role of life in the universe. When we start to pursue these questions, and start to explore the universe in trying to answer them, we come up against some profound questions that philosophers and theologians have long been wrestling with: What is life? How does it fit in with the rest of the universe? Do we have ethical obligations to extraterrestrial environments and biospheres? And when we consider, as I have been doing, the anthropocene and the role of humanity in the future of Earth, we have to grapple with questions about the role of science. Should scientists be activists or try to be “neutral, honest brokers”? If we perceive of dangers to humanity is it enough to report on them in a detached way or do we need to advocate for certain behaviors, policies or actions? Is there a danger to science when we become advocates? These questions take science beyond our traditional boundaries, beyond our comfort zone. We can make our own amateur attempts at finding answers, but why not engage with those communities of scholars who have long been considering such questions? We can use the help!

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