Talk about why you went into science.
I remember very clearly the beginning of my conscious life, and by that I mean my intellectually conscious life. I have this huge, huge recklessness inside myself to know the how and why questions. Why are we here? What are we doing? How does the universe function? And most of all, how does my own body function? These were fundamental questions, and I remember walking for hours and thinking all these things. And I caught the answer -- at one point, I was directed towards chemistry. And it occurred the answer to everything lies in understanding chemistry. Everything in the body is construed at heart chemically, and that's how I got into chemistry. And the deeper I went into it, the more intriguing it became.
Any advice for us?
Because science and these various products are so powerful and they are dominating our lives, I think it's very important to be aware of the fact that there are several things in human existence that are beyond the realm of science. And just because science and technology and these products exist, they will control, effect, and to a great extent, construe the way we think, the way we talk, the way we behave, the way we live, we need to be actively clear that this is not the totality of reality.
In Islam, is there a difference between science & religion?
The scientific tradition before the 16th century had come into existence from the same world view from which the religious tradition had come into existence. It was rooted deeply in the same sources from which the religious world view comes. Therefore, there was no such thing as Islam and science. And we find no one in the Islamic intellectual traditions before the 16th century writing about Islam and science. The connection that construes these two entities as two separate entities, science and religion, did not exist. They grew out of the same thing. They came out of the same root. They came out of the same sources. They came out of the same world view. Therefore, they did not construe the study of the natural world as a separate entity.
How did you become a card-carrying skeptic?
I got into skepticism after I'd completed my doctorate in the history of science. I also have a masters degree in experimental psychology, and I was always interested in the paranormal, pseudoscience and fringe groups and you know, ESP and aliens and UFOs, all that stuff. I mean, you have to be made of wood not to be interested in that stuff, it's fascinating. But what I discovered in science is there's actually a method, a way of getting answers to these questions, where you can find out if they're really true or not. So technically I founded a public science lecture series at Cal Tech, and I started to publish a magazine while I was teaching. But then the magazine, the lecture series, the societies, Skeptic Society and so forth, "Skeptic Magazine," they got so big that I quit teaching and I do this full time now. And some of that got published in my books, my books have done well. And anyway, so it's become something of a living.
Whom do you most admire and why?
Well, my first two books -- Why People Believe Weird Things and How We Believe -- were each dedicated, the first to Carl Sagan and the second to Steven J. Gould. These are my two intellectual mentors and heroes, as it were, mainly because of their passionate love of science and their embracing of science as a full world view. And also their ability to communicate science to the general public in a way that's both stimulating and fulfilling and in kind of a spiritual way. I think they make science almost spiritual.
What do you think are the key scientific advancements recently?
The biggest things in science, I think, are cosmology and evolutionary biology in terms of they're touching on the biggest questions of all, dealing with who we are, where we came from, where we're going, where the universe started and where it's going and so forth. Those big almost theological type questions that science is now daring to ask and even answer. In terms of understanding how we know these things, I think psychology is where the action is, particularly the cognitive sciences. In terms of understanding how our thoughts are formed, where we get belief systems like religious belief systems or even scientific belief systems, psychology's where the action is: cognitive science.
What is the general public's opinion about science these days?
Well, it used to be these two cultures, the science culture and the non-science culture. With the science culture and the arts and humanities, and there's this big gap in between. That gap has largely been filled now with popular science books that are read by the general population. If you want to feel like you're in a part of the literati, that you have some knowledge of something beyond pop culture, you really need to read Steven Hawking and Steven J. Gould and Carl Sagan and so forth. These are now a part of a whole body of literature. And the byproduct of that is science is trickling down. Everybody knows, you know, things like the Big Bang and black holes and wormholes and punctuated equilibrium. I mean, you see these things on "The Simpsons." You know when you're on "The Simpsons" you've made it into popular culture.
Can science inform morality?
In terms of what is moral or immoral, that's much more difficult for science to answer. I think the best science can do at the moment is to provide data to inform moral choices, which is important. Whether you can get scientific consensus on, let's say, whether abortion is moral or amoral, I think is problematic. But you can certainly inform your own personal choice by studying whether the neural template is complete and thoughts can actually happen. If a being can't think at all, then I think we can agree it's hardly considered human. Not everybody would agree with that, but certainly, if you personally wanted to inform your choice with scientific data, then I think that's reasonable. Beyond that, I'm not sure.
What are the origins of morality?
The naturalistic fallacy that you can't go from what is to what ought to be is largely true, I guess. But it's breaking down in the sense that science is attempting to answer at least questions related to morality and ethics in terms of their origin. Why are we moral? This is my next book I'm working on, Why We Are Moral. What are the origins of morality? Why are we the moral species? Are chimpanzees moral or immoral? Or orangutans, gorillas, dogs, you know, you can see a small sense of a moral sense there, elephants grieve when they lose one of their loved ones. You see emotional components there. But in no species, other than ours, do you see a moral content . Why is that? Well, science has answers to that question.
Why did you become a scientist?
I started out as a psychology major, and I was dismayed by the form that psychology took when I was in college, it was behaviorism. So that launched me into philosophy. I studied philosophy of science, but toward the end of my doctoral program, I realized that I wanted to change for two reasons. One is that to do philosophy science really well, you needed to know physics, and I don't. But also I was exposed to an atheistic environment for the first time in my life. And the questions about the rationality of religious belief were much more pressing for me personally -- and also a whole lot harder -- than the questions about the rationality of science. So I decided to switch to the field of philosophy of religion, and whereas I was unwilling to try to go back and learn physics, I was willing to take another degree and learn theology so I would know something about the content I was philosophizing about.
What are the key developments in your field?
The key developments in philosophy right now are in the field of philosophy of mind. This is the field that traditionally examines the nature of the human person. It's the sort of field that would just drive you crazy with frustration about 20 years ago because the arguments for dualism, against dualism, for materialism, against materialism, were just going back and forth. But recently, with the developments in the neural sciences, there has been a tremendous advance in philosophy of mind. The primary result is that very few philosophers now are body, soul or mind, body dualists. Instead, they understand our higher human capacities as a product of our complicated nervous systems and our culture. So most philosophers now are physicalists, or materialists, but most of the people in our culture are dualists, or tricotomists, they believe that they're made of three parts, a body, a soul and a spirit. So this is going to have a major cultural impact as the word leaks out.
Are philosophy and science converging?
Anglo-American philosophy went through a period in the 20th century where it called itself analytic philosophy and made a very sharp distinction between what philosophers do, which is study conceptual issues, and what scientists do, which is study empirical issues. But in the last generation or so, it's become clear that it's not really possible to make that sharp a distinction. Our concepts evolve in light of new knowledge. And so the most exciting work that's being done in philosophy right now is by philosophers who are consciously taking on more developments in science and asking, should this not make a difference to the way we have traditionally been talking about things. For instance, talking about the nature of the human person. We certainly have in our cultural heritage a concept of people being composed of a body and a soul, but science shows us that we don't need a soul to explain all of the things that human beings do. And so we simply have to change our traditional conceptual resources for talking about human nature.
What are the basic assumptions of theology?
That notion about the universe being regular enough and predictable enough that makes science worthwhile, supposedly came from the Judeo-Christian view of God. God was not constrained by the laws of logic, so you wouldn't be able to know what God had done simply by sitting in your study and thinking. But God is faithful and regular, and therefore, the universe should be regular enough that it would be worth studying. So that's an important place where the scientific traditions and the Western theological traditions come together. Of course, the major assumption for the monotheistic religions is that God exists, that God is personal in some sense, and has personal interest in communicating with us. I suppose that's the most basic assumption behind the Christian and Jewish and Muslim traditions.
Can science replace religion?
Science could never replace religion because it does aim at simply describing what happens in naturalistic terms. What causes what. What theoretical assumptions can unify our observations? So it by nature can never talk about ultimate reality, unless of course the atheists are right and the universe itself is ultimate reality. Then it's talking about ultimate reality, but it can never prove that the universe itself is ultimate. So we always need to answer the question, what is the ultimate reality? And while religions can't answer that definitively, science by nature is blind to those issues.
What is the philosophical method?
Philosophy is pretty much pure thinking. And styles of thought have changed quite a lot from one era to another. I teach a course for doctoral students where I look at the history of the development of the idea of what is philosophical method? And 10 weeks is not enough to cover all of that. There have also been big changes in theology. Some people would say that theologians merely interpret the content of the scriptures, others say that theology is a discipline that reflects on human religious awareness, and some of us would say that you've got to be doing both of those all the time. But my own entree into the theological field was taking my background in philosophy of science and asking, "What are the parallels in theology?" And of course the data have to be different, just as the data for biology are different from the data for physics. But what I was able to argue is that the structure of reasoning is the same, or at least could be the same in those two radically different kinds of disciplines. You're forming hypotheses to try to explain the data in the most coherent and parsimonious way in both cases.
Does God act through the laws of natural science?
All of the natural processes that we see appear to us as natural processes. And we have to infer that God is acting through them. So even if we could be sent back in time, we could watch the Big Bang happen somehow, we still wouldn't see the hand of God. We would simply see the Big Bang happening.