Twin Towers and Ivory Towers

By Ayres, Ed | World Watch, July-August 2004 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

Twin Towers and Ivory Towers

Ayres, Ed, World Watch

Who won the Templeton Prize this year, and why? I didn't have a clue. Winning a "Templeton" doesn't have quite the same ring as winning a "Nobel" or "Pulitzer." So, I listened with curiosity in March as National Public Radio announced that a prize of 795,000 pounds ($1.4 million) had just been given to George F.R. Ellis, a physicist who specializes in "relativity theory and its applications to cosmology"--the study of the origin and evolution of the universe.

Right away, I felt a vague irritation. It's fascinating to hear scientists talk about things that happened billions of years ago and perhaps billions of light-years away, but right now we have a billion people living in poverty and a million or so other species headed for extinction. What could George Ellis have done that deserved such rich reward in a field like that, at a time like this?

The Templeton Prize, said the announcement, is awarded each spring by the Canyon Institute for Advanced Studies, of Phoenix, Arizona, "for progress toward research or discoveries about spiritual realities." That seemed suspiciously vague, and I wondered what a hard scientist could possibly have to say about spiritual realities. A few seconds later I was listening to Ellis himself, who was explaining to the NPR reporter what he'd been up to.

Historically, he noted, science and religion have had little to say to each other. But many serious thinkers now believe that with the planet in growing crisis, it's essential that we achieve clearer communications between the disparate patterns of thinking and belief on which conflicting human movements are based. Ellis had been studying the pitfalls of reductionism, a pattern of thinking that is fairly basic to how most people in the Western world tend to analyze--and try to cope with--this crisis.

Progressives have often criticized reductionist thinking as a kind of unexamined belief that even the most complex and mysterious of life's phenomena--mental illness, passion, addiction, hate--can ultimately be explained in terms of molecular or atomic phenomena. It's the kind of thinking that underpins the recent drift of mental health treatment, for example, from traditional "talk" therapy to increasing focus on splicing genes and prescribing psychopharmacological drugs. What interested Ellis was the inference that if such "reduction" is really possible in all things, then even the conscious choices we think we are making are really determined by biochemical activity at a microscopic level. In his view, this inference is dangerously mistaken. He does not believe that humans have no free will. We are, he suggests, much more than the sum of all our molecules. We have responses to "the big picture" that cannot be predicted just by knowing the positions of all the individual pixels that make up that picture.

As I listened, I realized that far from being irrelevant to the day-to-day problems we face, Ellis's view could explain a lot about why the world seems to have become so destabilized in so many ways all at once--whether in the incidence of weather catastrophes, terrorist attacks, corporate collapses, cultural conflicts, or epidemilological crises.

Around the same time that the Templeton Prize was announced, for example, an alarming series of news stories was coming to a head in Washington, D.C. In many of the city's houses, the faucet water had been found to contain high levels of lead. Children who ingest lead (most typically from the dust of lead-based paint on the walls of aging houses or apartments) are known to be at increased risk of damage to the brain, nervous system, and kidneys. The government had mandated that when the water in a house has a lead level over 15 parts per billion (ppb), the pipes must be replaced. In Washington, 157 houses had over 300 ppb. One house registered 1,250 ppb. Moreover, reporters found that some of the responsible officials had known about the elevated lead problem for many months, but nothing had been done to warn residents.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

Twin Towers and Ivory Towers


Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?