Veritas Forum: Selfish Genes, Generous Soul?

This past Monday [November 23, 2015], Assistant Professor of Genetics at UNC at Chapel Hill Praveen Sethupathy and Columbia’s Associate Director of Frontiers of Science Ivana Hughes participated in a panel entitled “Selfish Genes, Generous Soul? An Atheist Chemist and A Christian Geneticist Examine Science, Faith, and Altruism.” Board member Jacob Ramon of The Veritas Forum, the group that hosted the event, set Roone Arledge Auditorium’s stage with an introduction on the night’s conversation. He reminded the audience that the point of the forum was to open a conversation that would hopefully incite each audience member to more thoroughly examine his/her beliefs. This is not, he cautioned, a debate to be won; it’s simply intelligent conversation.

The panel moderator, Columbia Professor Seth Freeman, began the talk by giving the audience an assignment: listen respectfully, so that at the end you would be able to summarize to a friend the arguments of the person who represents the view opposite yours. And with that said, Prof. Freeman turned the mic over to Professors Sethupathy and Hughes, who each gave a fifteen minute opening remark on their worldviews. Prof. Hughes fired the opening salvo, and began by talking about the trajectory of the universe, from its creation to where we are now. In what sounded kind of like a condensed frosci lecture, she talked about evolution and common ancestors and how humans came to be. Prof. Hughes wrapped up by saying that the wonder of the universe, as well as the capability of man to use the human brain and science to understand it, is why she is an atheist. Next up, Professor Sethupathy talked about how his work as a geneticist and scientist doesn’t preclude God. Rather, science and God can coexist, and has indeed coexisted all the while. It’s just that natural laws, or the laws that govern science and from which science is grown, cannot apply to the supernatural. Some things science—and our finite brain—cannot examine, but that doesn’t mean these things don’t exist.

Veritas Forum - Selfish Genes, Generous Soul?

The conversation began. Though the forum topic was ostensibly altruism and humanity, the topic of conversation didn’t get there till the end. Act I of the talk progressed like an Atheist’s cross-examination of a Christian. The debate, and indeed, once Hughes and Sethupathy began conversing there was no doubt that it was a debate, was lively. Hughes asked Sethupathy what exactly God was. Sethupathy responded, and I paraphrase, that if we were to truly unpack what God was, we’d have been there for days and still be no closer to the truth. Our finite brains are just not capable of a complete understanding of God. Vast infinities inhabit and find a centerpoint in God; such are things we can’t understand. God, Sethupathy pondered, would most closely be “spirit,” another thing science isn’t equipped to deal with.

Hughes conceded and quickly moved onto the next question: but does Sethupathy read and believe in the Bible literally? Sethupathy replied that yes, he did read the Bible literally, but that in fact, the word “literally” itself is contextually flexible. His definition of “literally” was to read it with the author’s intention. There is observational language as well as factual language and descriptive language, and often these are conflated. The Bible, though a religious text, is still a work of literature set in language. With this comes the linguistic complexities rooted in authorial intent. But if read with the author’s intent in mind, the confusion disappears, but the reading still remains literal. Sethupathy brought up the case where the Roman Catholic church accused Galileo of blasphemy by using the Bible’s “the sun rises in the East and sets in the West” as evidence that the sun revolves around the Earth. This, Sethupathy said, was an incorrect reading of what was obviously observational language. A “literal” reading of this would have to include the understanding that observational language doesn’t have to be factually true.

Hughes then asked him how there could be no evidence of God. The universe, to Hughes, didn’t seem to require a God. Sethupathy responded by reiterating that God was beyond the realm of science. He asked likewise, how could science prove that his wife loved him? It couldn’t. Love is beyond the realm of science. Hughes retorted that in fact, MRI scans and various scientific tests could prove whether or not Sethupathy’s wife loved him. Sethupathy rallied that such evidence simply shows the side effects of love, not love itself. And similarly, there is evidence of God. Here, however, the moderator interjected to keep the talk on track and we quickly moved on. Though I am aware of the time constraints of the forum, the treatment of the issues required more time and depth than was given. The lack of time removed the possibility of complete, satisfying discourse, but the forum certainly reached its goal of being a launchpad of intellectual discussion.

We finally got to some semblance of the actual topic when Hughes began to talk about the case for altruism from a scientific point of view. Humans, she said, are social animals much like our closest relatives the chimps and bonobos. In bonobo and chimp societies, conflict resolution and cooperation are highly prized as well. The maternal bond—and Hughes emphasized her role as a mother of three—was also an example of our programmed instinct toward love and altruism.

The talk then transitioned into the Q & A segment. The closing question from the audience, on how science justifies human rights, or the context in which human rights exists in Hughes’s scientific worldview stumped Hughes. She stayed silent for a few long seconds before asking Sethupathy if he’d like to answer first. Though Sethupathy was willing, Freeman said to Hughes that he didn’t want to let her off the hook so easily. Hughes again deferred her answer to Sethupathy and asked Freeman to come back to her later. Freeman finally acquiesced and Sethupathy answered by calling up the example Jesus set. As a Christian, human rights is close to his heart because his God was one who loved all humanity, loved people of any creed. He said that he had to take Jesus as his role model and his inspiration in his dealings with people.

It was finally Hughes’s turn to answer the question. She talked about the issue of childhood poverty, something highly important to her as a mother. She stressed that indeed human rights were important, but didn’t say what science had to do with it. Freeman called her out on not answering the question and prompted Hughes to try again. But the attempt was weak. By then, the forum was almost over. Freeman posed the closing question: if each of you could recommend a book that explains your worldview, what would it be? For Hughes, the book was Age of Empathy by Frans Waal. Sethupathy recommended Francis Collins’s The Language of God and the Biologos 1 organization, whose mission is to discuss science and faith, as the starting points to his view.

Freeman thanked the panelists and the audience for a great night. The auditorium, which if not packed was at least respectfully full, burst into applause.



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