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Humanism and science

Watch humanist scientist Jim al-Khalili describe the wonders of science

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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