Lanier on Science and God

Jaron Lanier has been called a “cyberspace Renaissance man,” an eclectic talent with impressive credentials in academia, music, computer science, and art. The Encyclopaedia Britannica lists him as one of history’s 300 or so greatest inventors. He is also a prolific writer, who frequently explores metaphysical topics dealing with the nature of human consciousness and its relation to the natural world.

One topic that Lanier has addressed is the sharp divide that exists between science and religion. He is no friend of fundamentalist religion, but he deplores the open hostility that intellectuals often display against any and all expressions of religious faith. For example, in a piece he wrote last year, Lanier argues that traditional religionists aren’t the only threat to intellectual vigor:

While the left is frequently associated with college campuses and braininess, it can also spread anti-intellectual sentiment, and the New Age isn’t the only way this happens. I’ve seen recent K-12 math books that focus more on multiculturalism and surface image than on math, for instance. The anti-intellectual component of the American character has been triumphant in the classroom for all too many students. This scares me as an American, because I wonder what the country will do to make money when these kids grow up. The goal should be better informed kids who think it’s cool to work towards honestly understanding the world (which is a quick populist shorthand for doing science.)

In a more recent piece, Lanier takes this line of thought further. He asks,

Why should a scientist show any degree of acknowledgment, much less friendliness, toward topics that are so big or mysterious that they can almost certainly never be addressed experimentally?

Some answers are: Because to pretend to be certain that such big questions don’t exist is to be dishonest. Because noticing what I’ll call “permanent mysteries” evokes wonder. And most important, because people are afraid to die, and they sometimes find hope in the unresolved status of the biggest questions. Take away that hope and you hand victory to whatever creep can give it back.

I don’t agree with all of Lanier’s suggestions for how to bridge the gap between science and faith, but it’s refreshing to hear an intellectual at least acknowledge that faith has a place at the table.


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