lee_m_silver's picture
professor at Princeton University in the Department of Molecular Biology
If we could just get people to understand the science, they'd agree with us.Not

In an interview with the New York Times, shortly before he died, Francis Crick told a reporter, "the view of ourselves as [ensouled] 'persons' is just as erroneous as the view that the Sun goes around the Earth. This sort of language will disappear in a few hundred years. In the fullness of time, educated people will believe there is no soul independent of the body, and hence no life after death."

Like the vast majority of academic scientists and philosophers alive today, I accept Crick's philosophical assertion — that when your body dies, you cease to exist — without any reservations. I also used to agree with Crick's psychosocial prognosis — that modern education would inevitably give rise to a populace that rejected the idea of a supernatural soul. But on this point, I have changed my mind.

Underlying Crick's psychosocial claim is a common assumption: the minds of all intelligent people must operate according to the same universal principles of human nature. Of course, anyone who makes this assumption will naturally believe that their own mind-type is the universal one. In the case of Crick and most other molecular biologists, the assumed universal mind-type is highly receptive to the persuasive power of pure logic and rational analysis.

Once upon a time, my own worldview was similarly informed. I was convinced that scientific facts and rational argument alone could win the day with people who were sufficiently intelligent and educated. To my mind, the rejection of rational thought by such people was a sign of disingenuousness to serve political or ideological goals.

My mind began to change one evening in November 2003. I had given a lecture at small liberal arts college along with a member of The President's Council on Bioethics, whose views on human embryo research are diametrically opposed to my own. Surrounded by students at the wine and cheese reception that followed our lectures, the two of us began an informal debate about the true meaning and significance of changes in gene expression and DNA methylation during embryonic development. Six hours later, long after the last student had crept off to sleep, it was 4:00 am, and we were both still convinced that with just one more round of debate, we'd get the other to capitulate. It didn't happen.

Since this experience, I have purposely engaged other well-educated defenders of the irrational, as well as numerous students at my university, in spontaneous one-on-one debates about a host of contentious biological subjects including evolution, organic farming, homeopathy, cloned animals, "chemicals" in our food, and genetic engineering. Much to my chagrin, even after politics, ideology, economics, and other cultural issues have been put aside, there is often a refusal to accept scientific implications of rational argumentation.

While its mode of expression may change over cultures and time, irrationality and mysticism seem to be an integral part of normal human nature, even among highly educated people. No matter what scientific and technological advances are made in the future, I now doubt that supernatural beliefs will ever be eradicated from the human species.