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Humanism and science

Watch humanist scientist Jim al-Khalili describe the wonders of science
Without science, our world would certainly be very different and very much more difficult. Very often, people say, well, you know, is science always for good? Well, science is a method, it’s a way of learning about how the world works. Knowledge and enlightenment is always a good thing. How we put that knowledge to use is down to us. And technology can be used for good or bad. We can be creating medicines that cure disease or we can be creating weapons that take human life. None of that tells us that science is good or bad. Science is a way of finding out how the world works and understanding that world. And I think understanding and enlightenment is always better than ignorance.
When people ask me ‘what is it about science that makes your life worth living?’, ‘how does it enrich your life?’, I always think of a quote by the American physicist Richard Feynman. He was asked by an artist, he said, ‘I see beauty in this flower, you know, and, you know, its colours and its sense. You, as a scientist, you break it down to its molecules and you somehow remove the magic from it.’ And Feynman said ‘no, I also see the beauty, I see the richness in nature, but understanding where that comes from doesn’t detract from the beauty, doesn’t detract from the wonder and the mystery’.
So, for me, as a scientist, trying to understand how and why the universe is the way it is and our place in it, doesn’t make it bleak, doesn’t make it cold and not magical. It makes it even richer. So, for me, science allows me to acknowledge and appreciate the wonder of the world even more than if I didn’t have that training.
What’s increasingly also important these days is that scientists realise the importance of telling wider society what they do and why they do it. So communicating science is very important. Certainly to me, it’s something that I devote a lot of my time to, because I’ve always felt that if I discover something new about the way the world works, why would I want to keep it to myself? Or just talk to one or two other specialists in my field about that result? Why would I not want to shout about it from the rooftops to anyone who would listen?
So I, in communicating science, I don’t do this out of altruism, I do it because I derive a genuine pleasure in explaining the mysteries of the universe to other people. I’m not trying to persuade them to give up their belief system. I’m just trying to convey to them why I’m so enthusiastic about trying to understand the world. One of the things that’s important for me in communicating science is that I want to get it embedded within popular culture, that I want people to be sitting in a bar, or around dinner table or wherever, talking about science in the same way they would talk about sport or music or politics. That’s what I mean by popular culture.
Not everyone can write a symphony, but it doesn’t mean that a lot of people can’t enjoy listening to Beethoven or Mozart in the same way, you know, with science, we, not everyone is cut out to become a research scientists who’ll spend their time in a lab looking down a microscope, but it doesn’t mean that many more people can’t appreciate the wonders of reality, the wonders of our world that science has helped us to understand.

Jim Al-Khalili is a theoretical physicist, author, and broadcaster. He is a professor at the University of Surrey. Author of a number of popular science books and presenter of science documentaries on television, Jim currently presents The Life Scientific on Radio 4 on Tuesday mornings, where he interviews prominent scientists about their life and work. He is a Vice President of Humanists UK.

For many humanist scientists, our innate sense of curiosity can bring meaning and purpose to our lives. For some, the quest to see further than others have seen before is what motivates their work. For others, it is simply the almost infinite list of questions that science reveals to us that excites them.

‘I am among those who think that science has great beauty. A scientist in his laboratory is not only a technician: he is also a child placed before natural phenomena which impress him like a fairy tale… Neither do I believe that the spirit of adventure runs any risk of disappearing in our world. If I see anything vital around me, it is precisely that spirit of adventure, which seems indestructible and is akin to curiosity.’
Marie Curie
Our capacity to uncover the inner workings of the natural world, including ourselves, can also be a source of deep awe and wonder to humanists.
‘All the great religions have a place for awe, for ecstatic transport at the wonder and beauty of creation. And it’s exactly this feeling of spine-shivering awe – almost worship – this flooding of the chest with ecstatic wonder, that modern science can provide.’
Richard Dawkins
Some have tried to claim that science diminishes us. Like every other living thing on the planet, we are the product of biological evolution, a process free from intentional design or a goal-oriented purpose, but rather the result of random mutation and natural selection.
However, something wonderful can be found in recognising the story behind our existence and the almost infinite unlikeliness of our being. Many humanists believe that a scientific understanding of ourselves enhances our appreciation of what we are.
‘The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.’
Carl Sagan

For humanists then, an appreciation of science and the wonders it reveals can enrich our lives.

Question: Does a scientific understanding of the natural world, including ourselves, enhance or diminish it?

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Humanist Lives, with Alice Roberts

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