A New Enlightenment?

In a recent PBS interview with Charlie Rose, 85-year old Harvard University professor emeritus of biology, E. O. Wilson, talked about his latest book, The Meaning of Human Existence, and what he calls "the new enlightenment." The old enlightenment, which began in the late 17th century, raised serious questions regarding who we (humanity) are, where we came from, and where we are going. Previously, religion, in its various forms, seemed to give satisfactory answers to those three questions -- at least for a time. But the old enlightenment, although it promised new answers, largely failed because the emerging sciences were only in their infancy, and they could not deliver what was promised.

Now, according to Wilson, we have the newer sciences of archeology and paleontology, evolutionary biology, genetics and its analysis of DNA, intensive studies of the brain, and the technologies of artificial intelligence (computing) and robotics, unlike anything we have had before. And if these sciences, and the technologies they have spawned, threaten to get out of control and overwhelm us, we still have, as Wilson reminds us, the humanities (arts, literature, and most of all, the human range of emotional life) to protect us from these dangers.

I wish I could be as optimistic as Professor Wilson. Yes, the sciences that he names in his list certainly give us a much better explanation of what we are in terms of the biological realm and where we came from. We now understand much more how our brains work (and how they can go wrong) and we are now capable of genetic manipulation of DNA that could alleviate much human misery, and we have robotics that can reduce or already have eliminated a lot of drudgery. But can they give us an answer of why we are here, a sense of meaning and purpose?

This question about the meaning or purpose of it all is where religion, and its cousin, philosophy, still play a vital role. And while we should welcome scientists, like Wilson, who may venture into the realm of philosophy, they should remember they can enjoy the authority they have as scientists only if they stick to the questions of how things are or how they came to be. Otherwise, as Einstein warned, they are straying out of their field of competence. This is especially true when the price of academic excellence, as it has often been noted, is too often knowing more and more about less and less. (Wilson first achieved academic fame by his study of insect behavior, especially among ants!)

Yet if that is true about scientists, the same is probably true about philosophers and theologians. If it is the job of scientists -- as many of them keep insisting -- only to tell us what things are and how they happened, then it seems to me to be primarily still the job of philosophers to keep asking the question "why?" This seems especially true, if after nearly three thousand years of trying, philosophers have failed to reach an agreement as to what the final answer to that question actually is.

As a result, we should not at all be surprised that most people turn to religion in one form or another in hope that in the end that both the world and our life in it will have made sense. But as we all know, religion has had just as long and much bloodier history of disagreement than has philosophy, especially when it comes trying to define the nature of that ultimate reality that believers call "God".

This is the reason why, as a theologian, I have been continually been drawn back to the views of not just another theologian, but instead to those of the psychiatrist, and Holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl. It was Frankl who wrote that "Religion is the search for ultimate meaning" and that "Faith is trust in ultimate meaning" -- this in the face of what was one of the greatest horrors of human insanity in modern times.

If Frankl was correct, and I believe he was, then it seems to me that while we should depend on science to tell us how we came to be, and maybe look to philosophy to ask who or even what we are, that in the end, it is only religion or faith that can give us a sense of trust or assurance that there is a final or ultimate meaning or purpose -- even if theologians still disagree on how to best describe what this ultimate reality really is.