God, Science and an Unbeliever's Utopia

Stuart Kauffman, who's worked extensively on complex systems, argued against the reducibility of all science, much less all knowledge, to physics. Higher-level phenomena must be consistent with physics, of course, but are too complex to be derived from it. Kauffman, although an atheist/agnostic like most of the conferees, even went so far as to tentatively propose introducing the term "God" to describe these unpredictable emergent consequences of physical laws.

Psychological foibles and failings were discussed and, since cognitive scientists were in attendance, some of the discussion was pleasantly data-rich. Neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran explained his work on a particular kind of synesthesia, the ability to see numbers or letters as having different colors, 4 as green, 5 as red, et cetera. People have questioned whether the phenomenon is real, but in an experiment in which many 5's and a few 2's, which are similar-looking but reversed, are intermixed on a screen, synesthetes are immediately able to pick out the 2's. Everyone else takes a while to locate them. The explanation for this ability is, roughly, that the areas of the brain dealing with color are close to those dealing with letters and numbers and occasionally these two areas bleed into each other.

Adam Kolber spoke on the legal and ethical implications of neurotechnology, in particular the use of drugs to dampen or even eliminate traumatic memories. More generally, he discussed techniques to measure aspects of our subjective experience and assess how iffy and malleable our mentality is.

Hard Line, Soft Line, No Line

Pat Churchland discussed mirror neurons and unconscious mimicry and the role such mimicry plays in evolution and the social interactions that are a big part of religious practice, and Daniel Dennett supplied new stories and wise counsel regarding "Darwin's dangerous idea" and its implications for religion and science.

Jonathan Gotschall, a literary theorist, argued convincingly that literary scholars could benefit from a more hard-headed tack when studying texts, one that took advantage of elementary mathematical notions, scientific principles and common sense. The alternative to not doing so is more hoaxes like that perpetrated by physicist Alan Sokal when he submitted a paper full of arcane but, in the context, meaningless scientific terms to a literary journal whose editors, impressed with the paper's seeming profundity, accepted it.

There were also informative talks by two novelists, a musician, a lawyer, two economists, a couple of historians, and several other humanists of one flavor or another.

Despite some efforts to broaden the approach to religious matters, most attendees did not seem particularly intent on deepening Enlightenment ideas. Chemistry Nobel-prize winner Harry Kroto spoke of his global educational efforts in science and scoffed at the efforts by the Templeton Foundation and others to find some kind of rapprochement between religion and science. He also noted that though very large majorities of Americans say they believe in God, only a bit more than 5 percent of the members of the National Academy of Sciences do. Chemist Peter Atkins made similar remarks.

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