Monday, November 06, 2006

Meaning of Life TV

Questions on ultimate meaning often invite responses generously laced with irony and avoidance. Perfectly understandable reactions, given such questions, at first glance, seem overwrought, impractical and so expansive as to not to offer any hope of resolution, appearing to be essentially, just intellectual conceits.

The reservations, however, seem to largely vanish at an intimation of mortality. Almost inevitably a sense of mystery occurs at the the loss of a loved one. For those buttressed by faith there is some comfort to be had. For others amid the sorrow and the doubts the questions multiply and the quest for answers begins in earnest.

Robert Wright offers the seekers a palatable survey of the ideas of some of the leading luminaries in varying fields of Science, Philosophy and Theology in his excellent MeaningofLife.TV site on Slate's on line magazine. Wright is no lightweight in his own respect. His book Nonzero:The Moral Animal published to wide critical acclaim six years ago, uses a benign interpretation of Game Theory to re-cast our whole history as as a species as one progressing upward toward a social ideal.

In this series of interviews he brings his own views to bear challenging the assumptions of varied speakers and sometimes catching them off guard. In one notable example, he appears to get an acknowledgment from Daniel Dennet well known philosopher and part of the vanguard of the new Atheism to admit that there is a sense of higher purpose behind the process of evolution. Dennet has since denied the inference but it is there on video for all to see. Perhaps more significant than this pained admission is how Wright's thoughtful and articulate questioning casts light on the apparently circumscribed nature of Dennet's views.

Wright's skeptical inquiry is not strictly reserved for the non-believers. He is similarly questioning of the various faiths and beliefs of the other thinkers he meets. In his questioning his choice of subjects is as broad as it is deep touching on the Anthropic principle, mysticism and the nature of consciousness to name just a few.

Personal favorites among the interrogated surely must include Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete and Freeman Dyson.

Albacete, initially trained as a physicist, later became a Roman Catholic priest and went on to hold prominent positions in the Roman Catholic Church. He also finds time to write, contributing essays to New yorker magazine and producing one well received book God at the Ritz: Attraction to Infinity.

Albacete gives a humane face to the Catholic doctrine on the association of belief and ultimate salvation, suggesting the doors are equally open to atheists and those of other faiths. According to Alabacete the road to Grace is not marked by doctrine but rather the sincere expression of selfless love. This is a departure from the commonly understood sense of divisiveness and insularity that appears to mark the claims of competing faiths. There is a worldly informality about Albacete that considerably adds to the appeal of his inclusive outlook.
Freeman Dyson's reputation today assumes almost mythic proportions, a mathematician who has had a hand in advancing the understanding of Quantum Mechanics and developing nuclear weapons technology and policy he is more popularly known for his well reasoned speculation about future trends in science and discovery. Early in the interview he quickly dispels his association with the so called Dyson Sphere as the idea of another. The borrowed idea proposed as a casual joke has assumed a life of its own, earning him a place in Star Trek Lore among other popular sci fi.

On video Dyson comes off unassuming and yet deeply engaging. There is a wonderful sense of clarity in his answers as he treads the line between science and religion with a sense of perspective not often seen in our current polarized political climate. He claims to be Christian minus the theology. At one point he says he is agnostic in the true sense of the word,claiming simply not to know. As such He rails against any reductionist argument in science that claims to have all the answers offering a remembered metaphor: science being a small clear green meadow in the midst of a vast dark, unknown forest that stretches to infinity. Each year the area of the meadow is expanded but it is still in the embrace of an infinitely large uncharted terrain.

Charting unknown terrain is a suitable way to describe the ideas of these indivduals. Wright does a commendable service in offering if not the answers then a deeply intriguing set of further questions to consider.

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