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—
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.
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.
Salobir: And that’s what the theologians are supposed to work on.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
Notes on this presentation by J. Nathan Matias at the Center for Civic Media blog