Twin Towers and Ivory Towers

By Ayres, Ed | World Watch, July-August 2004 | Go to article overview
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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.

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