Farai Chideya: We are con­tin­u­ing our day of inspi­ra­tion about what it means to be a free thinker and a lib­er­at­ed force in the world with a pan­el now on reli­gion and sci­ence, Defying Faith. And with us on stage are going to be three peo­ple who have more titles than we can pos­si­bly list, but we’ll give you a few of them, Jonathan Zittrain, Maria Zuber, and Father Eric Salobir.

So, Jonathan is a pro­fes­sor at Harvard’s Law and Kennedy Schools of Government. He’s Director of the Harvard Law School Library and fac­ul­ty direc­tor of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society.

Maria is Vice President of Research and Professor of Geophysics here at MIT. She’s the first woman to lead a sci­ence depart­ment at MIT, and the first to lead a NASA plan­e­tary mis­sion, among many oth­er dis­tinc­tions.

And Father Eric is a Roman Catholic priest and mem­ber of the Order of Preachers, also known as the Dominicans. He’s a con­sul­tant for the Pontifical Council for Communication, and an expert on the del­e­ga­tion of the Holy See at UNESCO.

So, wel­come Jonathan Zittrain, Maria Zuber, and Eric Salobir.


Zittrain: Thank you so much, Farai. Good after­noon every­body, and wel­come to our guests. It seems fit­ting to get to know each of you a lit­tle bit before we get into the ques­tion of which is the world’s one true faith, or sci­ence ver­sus the church, who will win?

So Father Eric, tell us how you came to be a per­son of faith, and in par­tic­u­lar of faith as a pro­fes­sion, if that’s a fair way to put it, giv­en a back­ground as a diplo­mat, a banker…a very inter­est­ing path, it seems.

Salobir: Yeah, I was a banker actu­al­ly, and I was pas­sion­ate about my work but after a while, I dis­cov­ered that the most impor­tant for me was what I was doing dur­ing the evenings and the week­ends. Which was try­ing to be involved in the church in a way to bring kind of…let’s say joy and hope to the peo­ple. That was my my main goal, and going to the non­be­liev­ers and try­ing to engage with peo­ple.

And after a while I said that’s a bit stu­pid, just to have a day job to pay the bills and to do that just as a night job. So I would not say that being a Roman Catholic priest is a job, but this is the kind of thing yeah, I want­ed to do all the time. And so I was [kept?] by that and dis­cov­ered the Dominicans.

Zittrain: And how did that hap­pen? Because there’s this vision maybe of walk­ing into an armed forces recruit­ing cen­ter and then they give you a test and they’re like, You’re going the Marines.” But I mean how do you pick a sect with­in the faith?

Salobir: I think it’s like enter­ing in a bath time after time, so you don’t see that the water is too cool because you’re accus­tomed with that. So it’s some­thing that I dis­cov­ered time after time with a lot of meet­ings. Meeting won­der­ful peo­ple in the church and out of the church, and dis­cov­er­ing that for me one of the big prob­lems of nowa­days is a kind of lack of hope. And each time I had this ques­tion that…how the thing that peo­ple are… Yeah, they feel a bit lost. They say, What can I do?” And prob­a­bly I can­not do any­thing alone.

And after a while I dis­cov­ered that oth­er peo­ple were try­ing to do the same. They were in the church—there are many out of the church, but the ones I’ve dis­cov­ered were in the church. And I was a bit fas­ci­nat­ed by what they were doing. And when I met the Dominicans, I dis­cov­ered that… We say very often that if you have two Dominicans you have three opin­ions. So it means that there’s no…yeah—

Zittrain: A trin­i­ty of sorts.

Salobir: That’s pret­ty tricky for the com­mu­ni­ty life. But at least it means that you don’t have to enter in a box. You don’t have to aban­don any­thing of who you are. Let’s say to deny any­thing of who you are. And then you can flour­ish in this place. And so I was so hap­py with that. So dif­fer­ent per­son­al­i­ties, so dif­fer­ent ways to act. They say okay, prob­a­bly I would find my way. And then, I was in.

Zittrain: Uh huh. And a last ques­tion on this back­ground. Is there a moment where you are asked to accept the cloth and take an oath, or a cer­tain crys­tal­liz­ing mile­stone? Or is it more of a grad­ual entry into the…

Salobir: No, there’s a grad­ual entry, but at some point we have vows. And speak­ing about obe­di­ence is inter­est­ing because we say, I promise obe­di­ence to God.” So it means that for sure we have a spe­cif­ic rela­tion­ship, let’s say, and we’re in…I’d say yeah, in a very spe­cial life, which request­ed from any Christian. And yeah, this is a time when you make a deci­sion for your life. And for sure after that, we just try to fol­low the path you have cho­sen on you own. But it’s not a rela­tion­ship with an insti­tu­tion, it’s more a rela­tion­ship with a per­son, let’s say.

Zittrain: Yeah. Thank you. Professor Maria Zuber. If we were to ask Central Casting to send us a sci­en­tist, Bill Nye would be left sort of unno­ticed on the side and you would be sent instead. I real­ize it’s an unwar­rant­ed slam on Bill Nye but you’re…you’re for reals, right? You’re a plan­e­tary sci­en­tist study­ing plate tec­ton­ics. Was there a moment when you felt like, That’s my call­ing. I’m a per­son of sci­ence.”

Zuber: Uh, no. There was not a moment. It was… Actually, I believe that it was genet­i­cal­ly encod­ed into me to become a sci­en­tist.

Zittrain: Well, there goes our Twitter feed.

Zuber: There are actu­al­ly sto­ries in my fam­i­ly about me in my playpen, and rock­ets tak­ing off on the tele­vi­sion and me stand­ing up and down and point­ing and laugh­ing and clap­ping. And I start­ed read­ing high school sci­ence books when I was in ele­men­tary school. And I start­ed build­ing tele­scopes when I was sev­en or eight years old. And I taught myself optics and ground my own lens­es. And so I’ve nev­er ever want­ed to do any­thing else oth­er than study space, and for­tu­nate­ly I’m doing it.

Zittrain: So you’re say­ing there was nev­er a moment because the moment had hap­pened before you were con­scious­ly aware.

Zuber: That’s what I—

Zittrain: The switch was flipped and you knew from the start…

Zuber: That’s right. I’ve nev­er devi­at­ed from that plan.

Zittrain: Wow. Wow, extra­or­di­nary. So, we’ve done a lit­tle bit about each of your his­to­ries. Let’s delve briefly into his­to­ry with a cap­i­tal H a lit­tle bit. We live so much these days in the present, just absorb­ing one news event as it hap­pens at a time. So it’d be great to have some con­text here. And maybe Maria, we should start with a lit­tle dis­cus­sion of Galileo. And I don’t know if you want to offer up the canon­i­cal (if I dare use that word) sto­ry that most peo­ple, when they think Galileo” what would they say sort of in Drunk History. And then, the real sto­ry as you under­stand it.

Zuber: Okay, so Galileo was…say con­vict­ed” so to speak, of heresy for his sup­port of the Copernican sys­tem, which is basi­cal­ly our under­stand­ing of the struc­ture of the solar sys­tem where the sun is at the cen­ter of the solar sys­tem and the plan­ets revolve around it. So that dis­placed the Ptolemy sys­tem, the Ptolemaic sys­tem, in which the Earth was at the cen­ter of every­thing, and the Earth was fixed and every­thing revolved around it.

So it is true that Galileo was accused of heresy, okay. But—

Zittrain: By the Dominicans, I believe.

Zuber: By the…

Zittrain: I mean, no to… Anyway.

Zuber: By the Roman Catholics. And I’m Roman Catholic here, so. But Galileo didn’t help him­self. The Catholic Church actu­al­ly was open to the idea of Galileo explor­ing the Copernican idea. He didn’t build the first tele­scope, but he very much improved the tele­scope. And he took obser­va­tions that showed things like the moons of Jupiter going around Jupiter, which showed that things went around things oth­er than the Earth, okay. And it didn’t explain… It didn’t deal with all the issues in the Ptolemaic sys­tem, but it raised doubts.

And the Catholic Church was actu­al­ly open to the idea of Galileo pub­lish­ing mate­r­i­al that treat­ed the Copernican idea as a the­o­ry. But he want­ed it viewed as fact, and there were still things that were unex­plained about it and he refused to do any­thing oth­er than treat it as fact.

Zittrain: So you’re say­ing the Church was more sci­en­tif­ic about this than he was?

Zuber: Well, there were still— And not only that, he actu­al­ly went after pas­sages in the Bible that were con­sis­tent with the Earth— You know, there were pas­sages in the Bible of like the Earth being fixed. And this is just incor­rect, okay. And of course the Bible shouldn’t be tak­en absolute­ly lit­er­al­ly, or that’s the view of many. Or there are other…it’s how you inter­pret what’s writ­ten. It’s not what is writ­ten, per se.

And inter­est­ing­ly relat­ed is Copernicus, who came up with the Copernican idea. Copernicus actu­al­ly held off writ­ing his book on the sun being the cen­ter of the solar sys­tem for a long time. Not because of the Church, but because of aca­d­e­mics in the sys­tem of Aristotle (and Aristotle was a fol­low­er of Ptolemy) and he was get­ting push­back from acad­e­mia. He actu­al­ly wrote his book lay­ing out the Copernican the­o­ry at the urg­ing of two senior peo­ple in the Church. And he actu­al­ly ded­i­cat­ed his book to Pope Paul III, who received it warm­ly.

Zittrain: A les­son to aca­d­e­mics, there.

Zuber: So Copernicus real­ly wasn’t held back by the Church So it’s kind of it wasn’t what Galileo said but main­ly how he said it.

Zittrain: Uh huh. Defiant, but maybe defi­ant in the uncon­struc­tive way? Or was the fight itself some­thing he want­ed?

Zuber: So in the lat­ter part of his life, Galileo moved away from col­lect­ing data to prove the Copernican the­o­ry and real­ly ded­i­cat­ed him­self to just see­ing that it be adopt­ed. So if he had con­tin­ued to col­lect tele­scop­ic obser­va­tions that added addi­tion­al weight, things might have gone in anoth­er way. We don’t know how his­to­ry would’ve turned out, because one can’t say. But cer­tain­ly, one could see a path that could’ve been tak­en that maybe there would’ve been some­what less resis­tance.

Zittrain: Now, hav­ing some­one here from the Dominican Order—

Salobir: Yeah.

Zittrain: I’m curi­ous what the sto­ry of Galileo is in your precincts, and how it maps to the sto­ry Maria just told.

Salobir: Yeah. From that point of view of the Inquisition, you mean. Yeah, okay.

Zittrain: I’m ask­ing the ques­tions here.

Salobir: Okay. So I’m not so accus­tomed to being asked ques­tions. Yes, we ask the ques­tions most of the time.

Zittrain: Bygones, bygones.

Salobir: First of all I would like to thank Maria for defend­ing the Church. So I will try to defend the sci­ence. I think that’s what I have to do. No, I agree ful­ly with with the sto­ry Maria said. What I would like to say is just…probably there was a kind of epis­te­mo­log­i­cal fail­ure on both parts. Because each want­ed to go too far from their own sci­ence. And prob­a­bly Galileo want­ed to talk about the­ol­o­gy, and he was not the best per­son for that, try­ing to see what would be the impli­ca­tions, what would be the con­se­quences of his the­o­ry. And prob­a­bly it was out of his field.

But in response, the­olo­gians did the same. And they were not able to be chal­lenged in a way…yeah, they should have faced this chal­lenge. I think it’s dif­fi­cult to see that with our eyes nowa­days because it’s in a time when all sci­ences, includ­ing the­ol­o­gy, were pret­ty all togeth­er and the coher­ence was very impor­tant among them. So mov­ing some­thing in one of them was very dis­turb­ing for the oth­er ones.

Zittrain: Yes.

Salobir: I think now it’s a bit dif­fer­ent, but at that time Galileo was a philoso­pher and a math­e­mati­cian. It was not a prob­lem. So I think this kind of fail­ure, let’s say, led the the­olo­gians also to inter­fere with his the­o­ry, as he did with the inter­pre­ta­tion of the Bible. What he said is in the book of Genesis it said God has cre­at­ed Earth first so Earth must be the cen­ter. And then the sun, the moon, and the rest, okay it goes around.

Actually, the chal­lenge for the Church and for the the­olo­gians was to say okay, per­haps that’s what is writ­ten. But for exam­ple if you con­sid­er that God has deliv­ered the Creation in sev­en days, know­ing that nowa­days Amazon can deliv­er every­thing on Earth overnight, it means that Jeff Bezos has defeat­ed God? Or does it mean some­thing dif­fer­ent? And I think it means prob­a­bly some­thing dif­fer­ent.

Zittrain: You’re argu­ing like a Jesuit now.

Salobir: Never say that to a Dominican. I know what I mean. So it means that we need to see that in between the scrip­ture and the sci­ence, there’s the inter­pre­ta­tion of the scrip­ture.

Zittrain: Yes.

Salobir: And that’s what the the­olo­gians are sup­posed to work on.

Zittrain: Yes.

Salobir: And that’s what John Paul II said. He said they were not able to face this chal­lenge and to recon­sid­er every­thing from the pos­si­bil­i­ty— At this time it was only a the­o­ry, it was not proved. But just to recon­sid­er every­thing. And they were not able to do that. So they pre­ferred just to shut the mouth of Galileo. And yeah, it was not the right way.

Zittrain: Yeah, it’s inter­est­ing that in 1979, Pope John Paul II thought it was time­ly to review the bid­ding on Galileo. There’s this is won­der­ful quote. He says, Galileo had to suf­fer a great deal—we can­not con­ceal the fact—at the hands of men and organ­isms of the Church. I hope the the­olo­gian, schol­ars, and his­to­ri­ans ani­mat­ed by a spir­it of sin­cere col­lab­o­ra­tion will study the Galileo case more deeply and in loy­al recog­ni­tion of wrongs from what­ev­er side they come will dis­pel the mis­trust that still oppos­es in many minds a fruit­ful con­cord between sci­ence and faith, between the Church and the world.” And that led to a com­mis­sion, I gath­er, that now says Galileo was right…on the facts, and is a hero of sorts.

Zuber: So that said, it was as ear­ly— So there’s ques­tions, you you know, then defin­i­tive­ly Galileo— It shouldn’t have tak­en 400 years, okay.

Zittrain: Well if Amazon can cor­rect itself, then you know.

Zuber: But it took less than that. We know that as ear­ly as 1740s…yeah, mid-1700s, that Pope Benedict allowed the pub­li­ca­tion of Galileo’s book, which—

Zittrain: It had been on the kind of Vatican banned list.

Zuber: It had been on the banned list and then it was giv­en the go-ahead for pub­li­ca­tion. And so I guess there are those with­in the Church who felt like the mat­ter was kin­da set­tled again.

Zittrain: Yes.

Zuber: But that wasn’t uni­ver­sal­ly under­stood, with­in the Church or out­side of the Church.

Zittrain: So I’d love to shift a lit­tle bit to lessons we might draw from this his­to­ry. With even the com­pli­ca­tion we’ve elab­o­rat­ed so far, one thing that jumps to mind is the pos­si­bil­i­ty of defi­ance as a strate­gic objec­tive in the court of pub­lic opin­ion. That some­times gen­er­at­ing a con­flict that might tech­ni­cal­ly be deesca­lat­able could serve an inter­est, under­score a prob­lem, to high­light some­thing, that the fight may some­how be crys­tal­liz­ing even if the par­ties don’t want it. But I don’t know if there are oth­er lessons that either of you thinks might flow from the sto­ry of Galileo.

Zuber: Well I think father Eric talked about the con­cept of time in this. And you know, part of the rea­son for the growth of reli­gions was because there was fear among peo­ple. There were phe­nom­e­na that they didn’t under­stand. And so reli­gion pro­vid­ed an order for that to hap­pen. And in fact, sci­ence at the time of Galileo wasn’t viewed as it is today. It wasn’t viewed as a full under­stand­ing of nature. It was viewed as a way of basi­cal­ly explain­ing the obser­va­tions that we had.

So at the time of Galileo, the Ptolemaic idea actu­al­ly explained the obser­va­tions that we saw quite well. So peo­ple were afraid of total eclipses. But Ptolemy’s the­o­ry was able to pre­dict the occur­rence of eclipses. So the fact that it didn’t explain all of every detail of nature wasn’t viewed as prob­lem­at­ic. The fact was that it explained some­thing that would oth­er­wise fright­en peo­ple.

And so one of the things that we could learn is we should always be open to data. We should look at what the data is telling us. And if it caus­es us to change our idea, then we should change our idea. But we have to think about the pace of change. And even with­in sci­ence, change can occur in a way that’s so quick that oth­er sci­en­tists don’t accept it. And so I think one thing that we can learn from this is just the impor­tance of, in the process of change hav­ing a good enough dia­logue and try­ing to get enough expla­na­tion going on that you can get buy-in to allow change to pro­ceed.

Zittrain: It’s also a neat obser­va­tion about intrainsti­tu­tion­al con­flict in defi­ance, rather than interinsti­tu­tion­al. You men­tioned Galileo and his peers maybe not agree­ing rather than just between the sec­tors.

Salobir: And Galileo was a very good friend of the Pope Urban VIII, who turned his inter­dic­tion to teach to the pos­si­bil­i­ty to teach as an [?]. So it means that he was inside the insti­tu­tion, as Copernican was a canon. So main­ly he was part of the cler­gy.

Zittrain: Yes.

Salobir: And so yeah, we can­not oppose those two insti­tu­tions. What we need to take in mind also is that at that time, the orga­ni­za­tion of all the soci­ety was relat­ed to reli­gion. Especially because in Europe the kings were from a dif­fer­ent rite. And so it means that it was chal­leng­ing also all the polit­i­cal sys­tem in a way which was not let’s say defi­ant or what Gandhi did, because it was absolute­ly not the pur­pose. The pur­pose was not to pro­vide any addi­tion­al right to any­body, but it was just shak­ing the sys­tem in a way that peo­ple were not ready to face. And so that’s also why prob­a­bly there were many fric­tions to change the mind­set.

Zittrain: This gets to the pace of change point.

Salobir: If I could just add some­thing. This morn­ing, one of the speak­ers said sci­ences have dog­mas, too. And that’s inter­est­ing to see that. Most of the time we need to take some things for grant­ed to go ahead. But time to time, we need to inter­ro­gate again every­thing which is in the line, every­thing we take for grant­ed. And it’s this kind of ten­sion between going ahead on bases that we con­sid­er as sta­ble enough, and going back to that all the time. I mean, we need to find a way to do both in a way which allows us to go ahead and at the same time don’t go in the wrong direc­tion.

Zittrain: That every­where you look, the human qual­i­ty of not want­i­ng to hear some­thing that might have an unpleas­ant con­se­quence for your world­view, that no insti­tu­tion has a monop­oly on that qual­i­ty sure­ly seems true.

Now, some­thing you had men­tioned ear­li­er per­haps was that there had been a blur­ring between mat­ters of reli­gion and mat­ters of, such as it was, sci­ence because you’d have peo­ple wear­ing mul­ti­ple hats. Galileo was a mem­ber of the cler­gy and min­gling with them and weigh­ing in on that thing. And it sound­ed almost like you might be sug­gest­ing a decon­flic­tion that would say just be very clear which hat you’re wear­ing and stay with­in your zone.” That with­in sci­ence, we’re talk­ing maybe about string­ing facts togeth­er and hav­ing a the­o­ry around it, but maybe not a tele­ol­o­gy about the mean­ing of life. And reli­gion maybe shouldn’t con­cern itself too much about whether the Earth came first or the sun came first, through lit­er­al­ism. Is that a fair decon­flic­tion or does that run into prob­lems?

Salobir: I would say yeah, that’s nec­es­sary. On the oth­er side, if you have kind of igno­rance between the dif­fer­ent sci­ences or fields, I don’t think it’s good. I think that the best sit­u­a­tion is the sit­u­a­tion of con­ver­sa­tions among the dis­ci­plines. Just because each dis­ci­pline can­not answer all the ques­tions, or even ask all the ques­tions which are nec­es­sary for itself, for its own work.

Zittrain: That sug­gests a lot of seats at a sci­en­tif­ic con­fer­ence for near­by fields, or maybe even dis­tant ones. Should there also be seats for cler­gy?

Salobir: I think that for the cler­gy, for peo­ple com­ing from the human­i­ties… I mean, also phi­los­o­phy, anthro­pol­o­gy, and so on.

Zittrain: Yeah.

Salobir: Just to ask the right ques­tions. Most of the time, when some­one from out­side of your dis­ci­pline will come, you will not pro­vide any kind of answer. But you would pro­vide a new set of ques­tions. And these sets of ques­tions, for exam­ple with a cou­ple of friends like Joi and oth­er ones, we work on the impact of arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence on the soci­ety. And we see that very often, let­ting the soci­ety ask ques­tions is very good even if the peo­ple who are around the table know noth­ing about machine learn­ing or deep learn­ing. That’s not the prob­lem. The prob­lem is they will ask ques­tions that peo­ple so involved up to here [indi­cates eye lev­el with his hand] in deep learn­ing can­not address spon­ta­neous­ly.

Zittrain: They’re drown­ing in deep learn­ing.

Salobir: Yeah, it’s really—yeah, it’s deep learn­ing, as you say.

Zittrain: Yes. Now Maria, just along the lines of the next step, Pope Francis recent­ly pub­lished an encycli­cal, Laudato Si, which maybe one crit­i­cism of it we’ve heard has been it’s a lit­tle bit out of the lane of mere­ly talk­ing about reli­gious impli­ca­tions of a par­tic­u­lar sci­en­tif­ic the­o­ry or dis­cov­ery, but real­ly get­ting a lit­tle bit into glob­al warm­ing and how much to cred­it the sit­u­a­tion right now, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on that.

Zuber: Yeah, so actu­al­ly it was a fas­ci­nat­ing doc­u­ment. And it’s true that the Pope I guess in a way you could say got out of the lane of the Catholic Church, but accept­ed the gen­er­al point of view of the fact that the Earth is warm­ing. Actually that is an uncon­test­ed fac—that the Earth is warm­ing.

Zittrain: Except for a few brave bil­lion­aires will­ing to defy the con­ven­tion­al wis­dom far adja­cent from their area of exper­tise and speak to pow­er.

Zuber: Okay.

So let’s talk about the con­text in which the Pope accept­ed that. The accep­tance was from the point of view that the Earth is our home and the Earth is a gift, and that humans have a respon­si­bil­i­ty to take care of that home. I mean, he actu­al­ly used words like you look at the hill­sides and the Earth is begin­ning to be cov­ered by rub­bish, and we have a respon­si­bil­i­ty as God’s chil­dren to take care of our home and to leave this home in good shape because we have a respon­si­bil­i­ty to our chil­dren and to future gen­er­a­tions.

And so I think it’s very fair to accept that inter­pre­ta­tion as well with­in, um…

Zittrain: That’s in the reli­gion lane.

Zuber: In the lane of the­o­log­i­cal respon­si­bil­i­ty of leader.

Zittrain: And if that’s the case, is there any­thing maybe…to either of you not in the reli­gion lane that could be that could be phrased that way? You could have some­body from a posi­tion of faith say, I believe God gave the Earth to humankind to do with it, to have domin­ion over it, and if they wan­na lit­ter the hill­sides, well, I’m a form over func­tion per­son.”

Zuber: Well, I sup­pose that could be said. [crosstalk] But that’s not to say that I’ve heard it—

Zittrain: I think I’ve heard it said. This is not whol­ly hypo­thet­i­cal, right.

Zuber: Yeah.

Zittrain: Yeah.

Zuber: So.

Zittrain: And then they would just say well that’s a reli­gious view and…

Salobir: I don’t think we… I think that let’s say the main inter­pre­ta­tion now is to say the Book of Genesis, what is said with the cre­ation of the human being at the last day. It says you’re the last one who [?] in. So you arrive in a place which was exist­ing before you. We don’t know if it will exist after you, but for sure it’s not yours. You’re host­ed by Earth.

Zittrain: A les­son of humil­i­ty rather than domin­ion.

Salobir: Oh, for sure. For sure. I mean, each time that the human being is not hum­ble fac­ing nature, there’s a dra­ma. It is ter­ri­ble. It ends ter­ri­bly. And in a very per­son­al way, some­one I don’t know, sail­ing on the ocean, if you don’t take care, if it comes to nature real­ly, you have to be very hum­ble. And I think that’s the same for sci­en­tists or peo­ple just dis­cov­er­ing new tech­nolo­gies or build­ing new tech­nolo­gies. We need to take all the ele­ments of nature in con­sid­er­a­tion, too. And it’s not from only a reli­gious point of view. I would say that this Book of Genesis, that we share with the Jewish tra­di­tion, also says some­thing deeply root­ed from an anthro­po­log­i­cal point of view. And I think that many spir­i­tu­al­i­ties could say exact­ly the same.

Zittrain: Yes.

Salobir: Just a kind of wis­dom, I would say.

Zittrain: Yes. Now, if you’re being spir­i­tu­al, that is a view from some­where. It comes with val­ues. The point is to be reflect­ing upon and then advanc­ing and mak­ing the case for cer­tain val­ues, just as you did. I’m won­der­ing do you think sci­ence has val­ues as well, or is it kind of a view from nowhere? And I say this mind­ful that we just recent­ly had a March for Science at which Joi spoke quite mov­ing­ly. And I heard a lit­tle bit of some ner­vous­ness from some sci­en­tists that that was mak­ing sci­ence just anoth­er play­er among many rather than sort of the over­ar­ch­ing frame­work that is maybe a view from nowhere.

Salobir: Is it still the frame­work? My feel­ing is that in our com­mon imag­i­na­tion, tech­nol­o­gy has tak­en the lead­er­ship… I will not say on sci­ence, because they are so relat­ed, one to each oth­er. But I would say that now peo­ple expect…a kind of, I will not say sal­va­tion, but help, from tech­nol­o­gy.

And so it brings a new set of ques­tions again. Because I think sci­ence is about dis­cov­er­ing what already exists. So it puts you in a sit­u­a­tion of the real­i­ty is there and you have to dis­cov­er it, but real­i­ty is big­ger than you. If you cre­ate, if you are a kind of cre­ator” of a tech­nol­o­gy, then you’re in a posi­tion that noth­ing exists and then you come and do some­thing. And prob­a­bly it doesn’t put you in the same mind­set. I don’t think it’s real­ly cre­ation like in the Book of Genesis, know­ing that when you work, you work with every­thing you bring from your pro­fes­sors and so on. So actu­al­ly you just add anoth­er brick on the wall.

Zittrain: Yes.

Salobir: But you can have this super­pow­er feel­ing of being some­one who cre­ates some­thing. And when it comes to top­ics like arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence, if one day they can cre­ate let’s say a being hav­ing any kind of self-awareness or con­scious­ness, then you could say, Oh, I’m the cre­ator now. I’m no more the crea­ture.” And yeah, what did we change in our…

Zittrain: So before hear­ing Maria’s view on this, if there were a March for Science (because it’s a renew­able kind of thing) next week, I’m curi­ous would you hap­pi­ly march and what would your sign say?

Salobir: Now, that’s a too-complicated ques­tion for me. Maria will answer.

Zittrain: Fair enough, and you can come back to it lat­er.

Salobir: For sure.

Zittrain: Peer review it.

Zuber: So let me just say, sci­ence pro­vides the knowl­edge that pro­vides the frame­work for tech­nol­o­gy, okay. Technology tells us what we can do. It doesn’t tell us whether we should do it. And it doesn’t tell us what the impli­ca­tions are of doing it. And so clear­ly that’s a place where spir­i­tu­al­i­ty can play a role in choos­ing a wise path.

Zittrain: And so in your insti­tu­tion­al role as VP of research of the great­est research insti­tu­tion for sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy in the world… [Maria rais­es a first in the air] I could just end it right there. Would you ever find your­self look­ing at some mas­sive research project about to be start­ed here and say­ing, Hey you know… Professor Frink, you need to have a val­ues analy­sis or per­son here.” I’m not talk­ing about an IRB

Zuber: Well actu­al­ly, we’re hav­ing this con­ver­sa­tion a great deal. You know, we like to think at MIT that we use tech­nol­o­gy, we cre­ate tech­nol­o­gy. And one of our goals is to help the world. In fact our our cam­paign that’s going on right now is the Campaign for a Better World. How can we use sci­ence, tech­nol­o­gy, social sci­ence, etc. to make the world a bet­ter place? And we hear a lot about well, automa­tion is caus­ing peo­ple to lose their jobs and it’s caus­ing soci­eties to become frac­tured, for people’s qual­i­ty of life to be stag­nant or even to out to regress. And quite frankly we at MIT, we talk about this a lot and we feel like we have an insti­tu­tion­al respon­si­bil­i­ty to be part of the solu­tion to that prob­lem.

Zittrain: So, could you fore­see an instance where the solu­tion to the prob­lem is to stop? And I mean by that is there knowl­edge bet­ter left undis­cov­ered?

Zuber: I would say more knowl­edge is bet­ter than less knowl­edge. The ques­tion is to choose a pru­dent path­way in order to progress.

Zittrain: Uh huh. Very diplo­mat­ic.

Salobir: I agree ful­ly. I would say the prob­lem is less the knowl­edge or even the tech­nol­o­gy by itself than the way it’s imple­ment­ed in the soci­ety. So is the tech­nol­o­gy mature enough to be imple­ment­ed in some very tricky ways? If we talk about med­i­cine, about crim­i­nal jus­tice and so on, or human rights. And also is the soci­ety mature enough to wel­come this tech­nol­o­gy? It doesn’t mean that this technology’s not good, it means that time to time, just the soci­ety is just not ready. It’s too rapid, [crosstalk] or not the right way.

Zittrain: Surely so. But let me then put you on the spot the way I just put Maria on the spot. If we fol­low the dot­ted line of that, in the judg­ment of a sci­en­tist, a latter-day Oppenheimer and the folks who helped him, could you see a sci­en­tist mak­ing the judg­ment, Humanity isn’t ready for this yet?” Kinda like at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, where they just sort of put it in a gov­ern­ment depot and they’ll dig it out lat­er. Could you see the sci­en­tists say­ing, I don’t want to pub­lish this pre­cise­ly because it would have such an impact on—

Salobir: Why only the sci­en­tists? I mean, the soci­ety has to say if it’s ready or not. So prob­a­bly we can­not ques­tion every­body, but at least the var­i­ous dis­ci­plines of sci­ences have to work togeth­er on this ques­tion. Because prob­a­bly from the per­spec­tive of only one sci­ence it’s not pos­si­ble to— If you cre­ate let’s say a new tech­nol­o­gy, you have the feel­ing that for sure every­body is ready. But there’s a kind of but­ter­fly effect time to time. We need to pay atten­tion not to be too micro­scop­ic in the effect we are focused but to see the macro­scop­ic view, the big pic­ture, and to see that it will affect many things.

Zittrain: Yes.

Salobir: If you use, for exam­ple, AI to check which con­vict can be paroled on not, that would have an impact on them­selves and vio­lence in the street and some let’s say met­rics that you can mea­sure. But that would have also an impact on the vio­lence or the view of dis­crim­i­na­tion and so on in all the soci­ety.

Zittrain: Yes.

Salobir: All of that has to be tak­en in con­sid­er­a­tion. And I think from the point of view of machine learn­ing prob­a­bly it’s not pos­si­ble, but if you put every­body around the table it’s pos­si­ble. Otherwise the dan­ger is… Let’s say what you say is not rel­e­vant. Among the Dominicans we often say this sto­ry, the sto­ry of the Dominican and the para­chuter. The Dominican are famous for their famous the­olo­gians. And one day a para­chuter is just hang­ing in a tree. And a Dominican pass­es by and the Dominican says to the para­chuter, Oh, you must be a para­chuter.”

And the para­chuter says to the Dominican, Oh, you must be a Dominican.”

And the Dominican says, How can you know that? Just because what you say is true, but it’s absolute­ly not use­ful.”

And very often when you speak out of your own dis­ci­pline, that’s what hap­pens.

Zittrain: Uh huh. Are there ques­tions for our pan­el? I under­stand there’s an object that might get hurled at you if you have a ques­tion, but that’s…salutary.

Well, while peo­ple think about whether they have a ques­tion, we can check in with Father Eric and see if he has any­thing for the sign yet.

Salobir: Oh, no.

Zittrain: Oh, you thought that was over, okay. I can ask anoth­er ques­tion.

Zuber: I can address the issue. So, we talked a lit­tle bit this morn­ing about the devel­op­ment of the atom­ic bomb and then Robert Oppenheimer argu­ing against the devel­op­ment of the hydro­gen bomb, a high­er ener­gy, okay.

It wasn’t wrong to try to under­stand the ener­get­ics of the atom bet­ter, because the knowl­edge of the under­stand­ing of E=mc2, that’s going to help us in the fusion prob­lem. And if we can man­i­fest fusion that we can get to net pos­i­tive ener­gy, then the cli­mate change issue is solv­able. So the knowl­edge itself wasn’t the prob­lem. It was the bombs that are the prob­lem.

Zittrain: Well, this is start­ing to sound like the end of a Newsweek sto­ry, which is the future’s uncer­tain, one thing is clear: if things don’t get bet­ter they could cer­tain­ly get a lot worse. That you have knowl­edge of pos­si­ble fork­ing there…

Zuber: Correct.

Zittrain: But if you thought one path was so poten­tial­ly cat­a­stroph­ic as to not want to take a roll of the dice as to whether both sets of doors would be open or only the good door…

Salobir: That’s the ques­tion. I think cur­rent­ly our tech­nolo­gies are not sim­ple tools. There’s so much inten­tion­al­i­ty in them that we need to real­ly pay atten­tion. We [can] not say okay, they are just neu­tral and peo­ple will use that for some­thing pos­i­tive or neg­a­tive. Someone who devel­oped a new tech­nol­o­gy has a respon­si­bil­i­ty just to check those var­i­ous pos­si­bil­i­ties and to seek to bal­ance the pros and the cons to see is the soci­ety ready for the rev­e­la­tion or the imple­men­ta­tion let’s say of this tech­nol­o­gy.

Zittrain: But you’d still only reg­u­late as it were the imple­men­ta­tion, rather than the knowl­edge itself.

Salobir: I think for me, just to answer your ques­tion a cou­ple of min­utes a day, if I had to write some­thing on a sign I would say a quote of the Gospel According to John, The truth will set you free.” So I’m sure that the knowl­edge is not a prob­lem. The prob­lem is just the respon­si­bil­i­ty, because the big­ger your knowl­edge is, the big­ger your respon­si­bil­i­ty is.

Salobir: And here you’re talk­ing about truth not just in sci­en­tif­ic truth nar­row­ly, but the truth as a telos.

Salobir: Yeah, for sure.


Zittrain: Question.

J. Nathan Matias: So I'm really curious, in a gathering about defiance and about maybe going outside of our lanes about scientists who get into politics, citizens who engage in science, a couple of themes that are really fascinating in this particular conversation. One is this idea of keeping within your lanes. And I wonder if it's related also to the very kind of institutional or collective perspective that our speakers have shared about science and knowledge and wisdom as something that occurs when people come together to work through an issue. You have the humanities people, you have the lawyers, you have the philosophers, and you have the technologists.

So I'm wondering if there are examples, if there are things that allow us to look beyond maybe the stories like Galileo, the stories of individuals who had conflict, that allow us to imagine what those conversations might look like as we all try to move beyond those lanes because we know that it's only by linking across those boundaries that we can make progress on those things. What are your examples of points of inspiration as you look forward, beyond just past conflicts?

Zuber: So I'll mention one related to climate change. So there is an Evangelical Environmental Network. And it is a group of highly committed evangelicals who take directly from the Bible "our responsibility is to walk through the garden." And they feel it is a responsibility to God's children for them to spread the word about climate change and to engage it in any way that they're able to forward understanding and progress on that problem. So for some of them they might be scientists who could study the problem. For others it might be activism because they feel like that's the way that there's an outlet. But it's clearly along the lines of what you're talking about, where you're kind of broadening your lane, so to speak.

Salobir: If I had just to mention one example I would choose someone who's absolutely not famous. Because he tries to work more or less under the radar. He's now pretty old. He's a Dominican in the north of Brazil, working— He's a lawyer and tries to provide rights for the farmers who have no land to cultivate and just to get some attribution of land. And it's pretty related to how can we feed the people, because there are possibilities to feed the people. How can we distribute the resources to be sure that everybody has a fair way to live and a fair standard of living.

But it takes a lot of courage, because for sure he was targeted by the Mafia many times. He was almost killed several times and needed to have bodyguards. He never sleeps two nights in the same bed. So it's very demanding. But let's say he follows this rule to say actually there's only one thing you cannot disobey, is your conscience. So if you consider that something is absolutely fair and right, even if it's dangerous, even if everybody gossips against you, if it's against the mainstream, no worries, do it. And that's what he does.

Zittrain: And this gets back I guess to Nate's original question about conscience as a matter of atomic (no pun intended) individual manifestation versus something that may be tweaked or inspired or fertilized by conversation with people who aren't like us. The kind of humility. Because having the conscience is saying, "Stick to the compass even when times get tough," while also having an intellectual humility to speak to others and be willing to change a view.

Salobir: Conscience doesn't mean that you will never move.

Zittrain: Yes.

Salobir: Conscience is like a compass, but in a compass, if you are in a boat, each time the boat moves the compass moves, too.

Zittrain: Yes.

Salobir: And so it means that all the time when you're on your path, you also need to be in touch with the others. It's more a GPS than a compass. I mean, it's more related to many resources which will tell you where you are instead of saying, "Okay, that's my way. I'll just go that way."

Zittrain: And it's funny you bring up the GPS satellites, because I realize that during the Space Race there was this enduring sense that if one of the things that could be brought back to the planet was a picture of Earth… A picture of Earth, which we take for granted that you know, yeah that marble. But that somehow that could be consciousness and conscience-ness -raising…

Zuber: It was a powerful image when it first happened.

Zittrain: Yeah. And a reminder too, then, that lines of defiance can run in nearly any direction. From an individual, the Galilean model, the individual at the center of the defiance circle, with the bastions of power arrayed around him in the mythic story. And also of a very still-powerful institution, say like the Catholic Church speaking through an encyclical, persuading the world at large, individuals and groups at a time of something for the perceived greater good.

And with that we are out of time and nearly back on schedule. So I simply ask you all to thank our panelists for an enlightening conversation.

Further Reference

Notes on this presentation by J. Nathan Matias at the Center for Civic Media blog

Defiance video archive


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