ROSEMARY AVERY: Good evening, everybody, and welcome to the Veritas forum. We've got an absolutely fascinating topic to look at tonight. So we're looking at genes, atoms, and human identity.
So I think I need to make a disclaimer as I start off. I'm neither a geneticist nor a chemist. I'm a social scientist. So I know absolutely nothing about the topic tonight. So there are no stupid questions at all.
So as I was preparing to moderate this talk as a social scientist, I did lot of background reading on the Human Genome Project, which I believe Praveen has actually worked on. And I became convinced that this was probably the most significant scientific breakthrough of our era. And coming from a public health perspective, I also learned that there are some 1,800 human disease genes that they've uncovered. And just the potential of the Human Genome Project to change our lives and to change our biological futures is just unbounded.
But what fascinated me even more than the public health aspects was the fact that I learned that 99.9% of all the genes that had been covered are common to us all. And only 0.01% of our genes actually determine the diversity between us. And in fact, there's more diversity within races than there is between races. And this is just a sort of fascinating topic.
But as I went through there and I was preparing even further, I started to get the feeling we're opening a Pandora's box and that we're expecting, in further investigations into our human genome, to maybe uncover more than there is the potential to do, more than what we're asking it to do, and that is tell us about our ancestry, where we came from, tell us a little bit about who we are right now, and then any biological events that are going to be shaping our lives in the future.
So a couple of really important questions I'd like the presenters to talk about tonight that came up in my research. And these are the sort of three governing questions. Is genetics a valid basis on which anyone can base their understanding of who we are and what we are? Can people choose their identity? And if so, how much can we choose, given that we've got 99% of all our genes in common?
And how much of identity is non-changeable, in other words, given to us? And how can we shape our identities as human beings? Are there choices that we can make in this regard? So I'm hoping that's going to bring our discussion together.
Prior to the forum, I asked both Roald and Praveen to present some opening statements. And I asked them to include in those statements some sort of background on their cultural, racial and ethnic, and also their faith backgrounds. And knowing that both Roald and Praveen are currently have faith perspectives that are different from their families of origins and their community of origins, to talk maybe a little bit about that transition of how their identity changed once they changed their faith beliefs.
So I'm going to ask Roald to start off with some brief remarks and then Praveen. You can sit.
ROALD HOFFMANN: Sorry. Can I sit here? Yes. So first of all, that would take more than five minutes to say what we need to say. But let me try. So I come from a Jewish family, born in Poland just before World War II. The war, the Holocaust, shaped part of my response to Judaism. And it's quite natural to see all that horror result in some emotionally wrenching changes.
I never was an observant Jew. The reason was that my parents were socialists. So this is a thread of Jewish assimilation that, anyway, pointed away from religion. Even my name, Roald, I was named after Roald Amundsen, the Norwegian Explorer who first reached the South Pole just 103 years ago.
Even that name is a reflection of the structuring of Jewish identity in assimilationist times in Poland. My uncles were named Samuel and Abraham. There was no way that my parents were going to name the Samuel and Abraham. Neither were they going to give me the name of a Polish saint or a Catholic saint, rather. Michael or Thomas were out, too.
So one looked for the names of secular heroes. That was part of the culture that I came from. And the name of a polar explorer was just fine in structuring that identity.
So a little bit about where I came from. I did later in life acquire objections to the tradition of Judaism from which I came and which shaped my people. And they most certainly were and are my people over 2,000 years and, of course, were very important to the development of Christianity.
Let me tell you a little bit about what my objections were to my own tradition, which I didn't share already. But they were later and they were recent. And some of them are fairly obvious. One is, for instance, the description in the Bible, if taken literally-- in here, I mean the Torah, the five books of Moses and the subsequent writings, especially in the subsequent writings.
There were acts which violated my contemporary 20th century morality-- the extermination of cities down to the last inhabitant. We know those passages in Kings, where, for instance, that is described. And that is obviously abhorrent to a modern sensibility.
A second thing is there were rules and taboos that did not seem realistic. You know what I'm talking about, whether what some food is kosher. There were even much more esoteric ideas about not mixing linen and wool in your clothing, which you probably haven't heard about. But these things, which make it make anthropological sense, which I could tell you about, did not make sense to an aspiring scientist. Why should it matter to God that we mix linen and wool together in our clothing?
A third thing was that there was an obvious inability to adjust to modern times. Now, this was weird, because there was some ability. So slavery, which is talked about positively in some ways within the Old Testament, went out of Judaism. Of course it had to. And so did polygamy, or rather polygyny. That was no longer, even though that was also among the patriarchs allowed.
So there was some adjustment, but there were these religious people who were still telling me that I couldn't listen to a woman singing in public. And that is one of the kind of esoteric rules. So Barbara Streisand could not sing for me.
So that obviously set me off in the wrong direction. Much more interesting-- not interesting, but there were also psychological things, and the things that I mentioned so far, incidentally, part of what Christianity reacted to as it split off from Judaism was some of the same things that bothered me about those esoteric rules. And to the Greek-influenced population, that was at the heart of some of the initial recipients of Catholicism, the Hellenistic culture. That was strange.
What bothered me also was the weird psychology as I grew more, I would say, adult or sensitive to the psychology of things, the weird psychology of a God needing continuous affirmation of His existence. I mean, that we would have to say over and over that blessed be the God, King of the universe, who has given us this. Why does He need that? That just didn't make sense.
It seemed to me, from my knowledge of people-- so I was building it to God of what I knew of people-- it seemed to me a weakness which I associated with people who are insecure, unsure of themselves, that they needed constant affirmation and constant praise. And I didn't see that.
So those are some of the things that initially, honestly, were in my turning against Judaism. I will tell you later about why it's not Judaism, but in general, the idea of a God also gives me trouble. But maybe that's enough to begin with.
ROSEMARY AVERY: Great. Thank you so much, Roald. Praveen?
PRAVEEN SETHUPATHY: Yes, thank you. I do want to thank the Veritas Forum for inviting me here today and Cornell for hosting me and Dr. Avery for moderating the event. I do also want to say a few words about the distinguished gentleman with whom I share the stage today. It's an honor and a privilege to share the stage with you, Roald. You are a true, true treasure of Cornell.
And your reputation precedes you, but in our brief interactions, what has impressed me most about Roald is his humility, his thoughtfulness, and his heart. If you haven't gotten to know Roald, I would. Thank you, Roald, for participating in today's event and for contributing your voice and your experience to today's discussion. And I do look forward to many more years of friendship with you.
Both Roald and I have been asked, as you heard, to keep our opening remarks fairly brief, under 10 minutes. If you know anything about academics, it's that we like to talk. And we rarely do anything under 10 minutes. But I promised Rosemary, and I'm going to do my very best to keep this brief so that we can get to some of the more interesting Q&A sections of today's event.
So what makes us human? That's the topic for today's discussion. And at the heart of this question, I believe, is a search for identity, which is something that I think resonates with most if not all of us. So who am I? Well, I am a Christian, a scientist, with a Hindu background, Indian ancestry, Canadian birth, and American citizenship.
So it's a lot to unpack, and I'm certainly not going to accomplish that in five minutes. But in my opening remarks this evening, I think what I'll do is just highlight three major aspects of my identity. So the first is my name, Praveen Sethupathy, which is of Sanskrit origin, and it means skillful. The Praveen does, anyway. And my family also calls me Raghu, which is after a great emperor in Hindu mythology whose line gave rise to Rama, an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu.
Sethupathy means Lord of the Bridge. And the bridge refers to a former chain of limestone shoals that connected the southern tip of India to the northern coast of Sri Lanka. And according to ancient Hindu epic Ramayana, the bridge was constructed by Lord Rama and his army.
So needless to say, my name is steeped in ancient Indian tradition and Hindu lore. And my name is one of the precious few elements of my day-to-day life that serves as a welcome reminder to me of where I come from. It strengthens my bonds with my Indian heritage, my family. My father, who gave me my name, grew up in a small village in South India, where he was raised with age-old traditions and cultural ideals, many of which he passed onto me and that I'm now passing on to my children today.
India is an inextricable part of who I am, an inextricable part of my identity. I feel blessed to be an Indian American. And as an English-speaking Christian born and raised in North America, my name is one of the few things that highlight my Indian heritage.
The second aspect of my identity that I'd like to highlight is my genetic makeup. Rosemary referenced this in the opening remarks. Our DNA holds traces of not only our recent human ancestry, but of a much longer evolutionary history my genome contributes substantially to all sorts of traits, some rather prosaic, like by skin color or my height, other interesting ones, like my competitive drive and my need for the Buffalo Bills to win.
My genome even holds clues about predispositions that I might have to various diseases. But as much as my genetics shapes my identity, advances in science have demonstrated that by no means does it seal the fate of my identity. For example, our environment heavily influences how our DNA works. So individuals with very similar or even identical DNA sequences will develop different traits and behaviors and identities as a result of how their unique life conditions have shaped how their DNA functions. And we get into a little bit more of the science if there's interest as the evening progresses, but the key point is that our identities are influenced but not fully determined by any means by our genetics.
The third and final aspect of my identity that I'll share is something that is wrapped up within the person of Christ. In my own spiritual journey during my years at Cornell, I studied many different faith traditions, including Christianity. And the hero of that story is a naked and disfigured and seemingly pathetic man on a cross. It seemed to me the antithesis of a hero at first.
But what I would learn is that in the cross, Jesus was turning upside down my notions of power. You see, you and I, if you're anything like me, anyway, would think about exercising power by exerting our perceived superiority or authority, often by force, on the world. But it seemed as though he was laying his life down before the world. In other words, it wasn't that he was powerless to stop what was happening to him, but it was that this is how far he would go to exercise his power to make things new.
So as a Christian and one who claims to follow in the way of Christ, I'm also called to live a life of self-sacrifice for the benefit of others. Now let's be clear. I think don't always live up to that calling. But it really does shape the way that I think about who I am. So that's a brief look at culture and genetics and faith and their contributions to my identity. Thank you again for the privilege to be a part of this event. And I look forward to the discussion.
ROSEMARY AVERY: Thank you both for keeping it nice and short and to the point-- very interesting. So the rest of the discussion now we're going to have two parts. The first parts are going to be pre-prepared questions that I've actually shared with the speakers. And either of them can answer them, and they might be more pertained to one or the other. And the first part of that is going to address the issue of biology and genetics. And then the second part is going to be more of the faith in the genetics and how those two interact.
So the first question that I have pre-prepared is the following. Is there empirical evidence within science that tells us that we are more than our genes? And sort of carry-on question to that is, some of the research that I've done has suggested that if our ancestors went through traumatic experiences, such as a war or a famine or the Holocaust, that our genes carry some memory trace of that energy through our genes. And so my question is, is that possibility? And then second, what part do all of these memory traces and these genetic traits play in giving us freedom to determine who we are?
So either of you can take over this question.
ROALD HOFFMANN: Well, I think Praveen should answer, because the immediate answer is a branch of science which he has played into. So tell us a little about it.
PRAVEEN SETHUPATHY: Sure. The answer--
We also have answers for meaning of life and things like that tonight if you're interested.
So the answer, Rosemary, in brief is yes, that is indeed very possible. And there are a lot of advancements in science in the last few decades that have brought us to the point where we actually can have a fairly robust conversation, not only about whether it can happen but how it can happen, the mechanics of it. Let me give you a few examples. You've probably heard it said very often that we have billions to trillions of cells in our body. And that's true.
But did you know, and maybe some of you do, that there are more bacterial cells in our body than human cells, 10 times as many, right? So right off the bat there's a confusion. When we're talking about how we define our humanity, and we're referencing our biology, we have 10 times more cells that are microbes of various sorts than human cells in our body, whether it's on our skin or in the deep recesses of our gut.
And so right off the bat, it tells you that we are indeed more than just the genetics in the human cells, just the DNA in the human cells. These microbial organisms influence us in very complex ways. And we are just at the tip, scratching the surface of understanding how they are doing this and how effective and potent they can be. But certainly these microbes have been connected to the development of a wide range of diseases, such as diabetes, obesity, and a number of others.
Another example is the field of epigenetics. And so epi-, the prefix there, means above or beyond. And so this was meant to indicate that it was the study of something beyond DNA itself. In our cells, DNA is not naked. It is wrapped up in this packaging material, and the packaging material can be modified chemically in diverse kinds of ways. There are hundreds of different kinds of chemical modifications that can be deposited on the packaging material of DNA.
The different combinations of chemical modifications dictate whether or not certain portions of the DNA are actually going to be on or off. And if they're going to be on, to what extent are they going to be on? Are we going to turn on a particular nearby gene to 40 units or 80 units or 100 units?
So you can think about them almost as dials or rheostats. And so you could have the same exact DNA sequence but have it packaged differently. And what that is going to do is make the genome function differently. And so why is that critical to this discussion? Any number of lifestyle choices that we made can influence what chemical modifications are made to the packaging material and thereby influence how our DNA is going to function, which genes are going to get turned on and turned off, and to what extent.
And so smoking, our diet, any number of kinds of obvious lifestyle choices, can influence the modifications of the packaging material of our DNA. There are also much more subtle things, conditions of life, abuse in early age, any number of other things like that have also been shown to be able to modify the epigenome, if you will. So these are all things are happening to us externally, and yet controlling how our cells are interpreting the DNA information.
And so when Rosemary refers to there being memory traces, this can indeed be the case, because it turns out that some chemical modifications are heritable. They can be passed on from one generation to the next in the same way that our DNA material can. The mechanisms of this are still being worked out, but that it can happen with some kinds of chemical modifications on the packaging material is now well appreciated.
ROALD HOFFMANN: It's an interesting-- it's a return of Lamarckian ideas in a way. But I sometimes wonder if things had gone another way and somehow Darwin and Wallace were not there, if Lamarckianism had been there for a longer time, would Darwinism have come in? In another way, it had to come in.
PRAVEEN SETHUPATHY: Right.
ROALD HOFFMANN: So the reason I let him talk about it is because that's what he works on is epigenetics. And it's wonderful to read about it. I think we are genetically prompted, perhaps limited somewhat, but prompted is mainly, and we are culturally conditioned. It sets in early on. Any of us who have children-- or you can reflect on your childhood the extent to which your peers had a greater influence on you than your parents.
And ultimately, we are individually formed. And the choices are ours. If, as was said, if we share 99% of the genetic material, I want to expand that a little bit. We share with great apes 98% or some figure like that. And even with E. coli, we share a very substantial amount. And I don't think there is any doubt about this. These are facts which come out of DNA analysis.
Does that make up us like E. coli? Does it make you like me? Does it free us of choices for good and for evil? No more than the original sin prevents you from making a choice about being good and evil.
Your genes set some of the stage, but the diversity is quite remarkable, and especially when you add on top of biological evolution cultural evolution, which moves so much more quickly and allows more diversity.
What I mean is that, yes, you get tired if you hear that song of the ninth time, but you have the freedom to look for another song. And there's an incredible variety of songs out there.
You can form your life, given chance and thoughtfulness about the choices that you make. You can form your life in an essential infinity of infinities way to make the choices that you need to make.
ROSEMARY AVERY: So, Roald, let me pick up on that and pick up definitely on this memory trace issue. And that is you've spoken in the past about the experiences that your parents went through and you went through in the Holocaust. And you're now picking up on the social influence, advertising, TV, movies that we see that tell us not only who we are but who we're supposed to be within that culture. To what degree do you determine that we have actually got that freedom to choose? And maybe you could also talk a little bit about what impact the experiences of your parents and you in the Holocaust has determined your world view and your way of making those choices in your life.
ROALD HOFFMANN: There are two different questions, but I think I do worry, like many people, about the choices that we make when those little cookies that you leave on your computer influence-- yes, they influence what ads you get from Google on the site. But we are headed toward a future which looks ominous, where a lot of the visual and textual prompts in our life around us will be provided based on some computer's valuation of your likes and dislikes. And I do worry about that.
I still think we have choices. So in our time, we were formed by what? By articles we read in the magazines, by pictures of American life generated in the movies, a convenient fiction serving somebody, and ideals ones. But then they were modified by the realities of life.
I think we were shaped by the cultural influences about us, and foremost among them was that great instrument of moral instruction, which is the novel-- novels, books, which I think shape how we behave. And I worry a little about what that shaping will take place.
Now in my case, you mentioned the Holocaust. And that is one of the reasons why I lost the faith that I didn't have for it.
So I didn't have it to begin with. But we are getting here immediately into one of the fundamental religious problems, which every religion faces, and that is the existence of evil and how we deal with it and how we reconcile it within the idea of a good God or a good presence, good ideas in us. The Holocaust, with its great destruction of innocent lives on a measure which was just impossible to conceive, but only one of the great destructions of our times, be it the Armenian Genocide or the number of people killed under Stalin's rule, for instance, in the Ukraine, where I come from, by the Holodomor, by the starvation, or in Mao's China.
The number of innocent loss of life was enough, certainly, to make some people unreligious. But one person in my family became religions as a result. So it's unpredictable, even what that suffering will cause. But it certainly played an important influence in my life and in many people in my family.
PRAVEEN SETHUPATHY: Can you remind me, Rosemary, of the [INAUDIBLE]?
ROSEMARY AVERY: [LAUGHS] Same question. We were talking--
PRAVEEN SETHUPATHY: Do you have another one?
ROSEMARY AVERY: Yes, I do, right here.
PRAVEEN SETHUPATHY: OK, please.
ROSEMARY AVERY: Maybe we'll move on. So I'd like to sort of move a little bit more into the sort of science and faith area here and sort of nexus of science and faith, as it were. So all of us, as we grow from infancy through to maturity, we adopt or choose-- I'm hoping we can choose and it's not all just genetic. We choose a set of principles by which we organize our lives and we make sense of our lives and we interact with the world.
And this represents what is a worldview, the worldview that we hold. And you two hold very different worldviews in terms of is there a God, what role does that God play. And I've heard Roald say many times before, both in Vertias forums and in person, that there's a certain amount of knowledge that we generate about our world that isn't scientifically provable in any way.
So the question I want to ask now-- maybe Roald or Praveen can take this-- how does the reason and logic and intellect you apply in your research in your professional life as scientists form you understanding of who you are and shape your worldview? And maybe you could also comment on any tensions that you feel in maintaining your intellectual integrity as well as your spiritual integrity.
PRAVEEN SETHUPATHY: So I can speak for the life sciences. There's a common misconception that the scientific pursuit is pure objectivity, particularly when it comes to doing science to investigate things you cannot see. I do that every day. And we even joke around about how, when we isolate RNA or protein, we expect to see something at the bottom of the tube, and often we don't, we walk by faith and not by sight.
But more seriously, there's a diverse kinds of scientists [INAUDIBLE] that I'm more familiar with that are investigating things that you cannot directly observe. How deep is the ocean floor? What are the mechanisms of speciation X billion years ago? These are clearly not things that we can directly observe.
And so what is it that we're doing as scientists? We are making observations, generating hypotheses, doing tests, making observations, all the classical things. But fundamentally, what we're doing is accumulating evidence in favor of one model or the other.
And so when we sit down to try to uncover a particular biological phenomenon or answer a biological question, there are any number of models that might explain it. And our job is to do, in a rigorous manner with a careful logic, accumulate evidence that either supports or refutes one model over another. And so the reason why, for example, that the vast majority of biologists subscribe to the evolutionary theory is not because in the purest sense of the word, anybody has gone back in history and proven it and shown the tape of history to everybody and said, well, here it is.
Actually, just the inferences that have been made over many years-- in fact, when Darwin came out with his Origin of Species, there was a tremendous amount of skepticism in the scientific community. And in fact, it was actually Asa Gray, a theologian at Princeton University, who encouraged our ideas in America. And how much times have changed, right?
But over the years is the development of evidence that eventually suggested that that model was far more plausible, enormously more plausible, than really any other model that we might invoke. And that's a lot of times what we're doing in our scientific research. And so I think it is important that we are careful in thinking that science is pure objectivity and everything else is just subjective, right?
We're not necessarily proving anything the way that you might in theoretical mathematics. It often feels like a proof, because it's extremely convincing. But it's not technically a proof. So I think it is important to make that point.
The second thing I would mention is that-- and Roald has written elegantly about this-- there are other ways of knowing. That is something that I believe. For example, consider the love that my wife has for me. If any one of you challenged me to prove it, I'm not sure what I would do. Become because I don't really think I could. I mean, I would sit there and say, well, look, I mean, consider our life, and look at what she has done for me here and there, and here's our story.
But I would essentially be telling you a story. And I would be relaying a set of experiences to you, right? That would either be convincing or not, right? But I wouldn't be able to prove it.
And yet I don't know that any one of you would challenge me that I don't really know that my wife loves me. So there are different kinds of ways of knowing. And so even as a scientist, as I pursue reason and logic, I'm well aware the entire time that there are other ways of knowing and other ways of shaping my identity.
ROALD HOFFMANN: Even in two hard sciences like chemistry and physics, the ways of knowing are different. And the ways of knowing in chemistry-- or the most interesting part of what chemistry is is not reducible to physics. That's not necessarily a popular view among the physicists. And even among some chemists, who are willing to accept reductionism when it comes vis-a-vis biology, but then they maybe draw a line at physics.
I think what Praveen has said is right. Very little of science operates in a strictly "scientistic" process of gathering evidence, forming hypotheses, and disproving them. A lot is stepwise accumulation of knowledge, just like he said, a kind of knowing without seeing. In the particular context of chemistry, the structures of all these molecules, we did not wait for any microscopes. There's scanning tunneling microscopy, which can show us these images. We did not wait for any microscopes to show us this.
But with the hard and soft knowledge of our minds and hands combined, there have to be experiments. With our fallible senses, with the extension of our senses that instruments are that have to be calibrated, somehow we got little pieces of indirect knowledge that there was a double bond between the carbons in this molecule and then that we could build from that knowledge so that we could tell whether this molecule of chlorophyll or morphine was the way that it is. And that indirect knowledge needs to be admired. And it is very important.
Nevertheless, there is a scientific frame of mind, a way of looking at phenomena, which even the disparate fields of chemistry and physics and others that we share, we somehow have a feeling. It has to do with a marshaling of the evidence, the kind of questions that you ask. And nothing is proven definitely. But somehow, a structure builds.
Can on apply that way of thinking to questions that are questions of faith? So part of it, you can. And when Praveen talks, for instance, as I've heard him talk about the historical evidence for the existence of Christ or the Resurrection, part of it he will marshal a quasi-scientific way of approaching that historical evidence. And the historicity question, yes, but then on other questions, I think you take a leap of faith.
PRAVEEN SETHUPATHY: Completely correct, yes. There's only so far in certain kinds of knowing-- I mean, again, going back to the love that my wife has for me. She didn't know she was going to feature so prominently in today's discussions.
But if we're honest with ourselves, there is a little bit of-- this isn't a perfect analogy, but there's a little bit of accumulation of evidence when you're dating or courting, you're looking for the signs or whether there is the evidence that this person is interested in you, that kind of thing. But at some point, you take a leap of faith that this is going to work. As I said, this is not a perfect analogy, but this is in a lot of ways how my own journey and my spiritual journey was.
And I had an impulse even at an early age to want to be as rigorous in my investigation of things as I could, and Paul himself says that if the Resurrection is not real, then Christians are to be pitied among all people. Because it's a royal waste of time. Everything hinges on that, right?
And so if that is indeed the case, which I believe, then I darn well better do some due diligence to see whether there's feasibility here, right? And so there is, as Roald said, a quasi-scientific approach. And again, really for me that just meant there are a lot of different models to explain what I'm sitting here reading in the Bible, anywhere from, this was real and that's why I'm reading it, to, this is legend, fabrication, the greatest story ever told and that's it, and then all sorts of possibilities in between. And so I have to look at those models and begin to look at the evidences that I can in as much as is available to me from biblical and extra-biblical documentation and begin to build a case for one or the other models.
But at some point, one has to take a leap of faith. And reason alone is not going to bring you to the place where you say, aha, I have proven it to myself. The scientific process is necessarily agnostic with respect to God, in the sense that it can neither definitively prove or disprove His existence or any particular faith tradition.
ROALD HOFFMANN: So I do want to tell you how my undertaking a similar quasi-experimental, quasi-scientific approach led me to a lack of faith. So when I was 18, I spent the summer in Washington, DC. I was working at National Bureau of Standards, then in downtown Washington, living in a dingy boarding house.
And I decided I was going to do something rational about religion. So I went each week to a different religious service, and one time to a Catholic church, which I knew because we had been Catholics for a year and a half.
But then I went to an Evangelical church, where I was the only white person in the tabernacle. And I went to a Bahaian Islamic service. And I looked at those. And what I saw around me-- so I'm telling you of my experiment or investigation. What I saw around me was people of good faith. I was welcomed in that black community. I was not made to feel any different, though I was different.
And everyone was saying good things about their neighbors, about themselves. They were holding hands at the end of the service. But what I saw was these good, honest people had clearly reached rather different ideas about what religion and God meant. And I took that not as any direct evidence-- I took that as part of a forming a worldview. I also had read. I had studied comparative religion in some way in a course at Columbia shortly thereafter.
I took it as a worldview that there must be-- so this is very different from Dawkins and Hitchens. I think religion is deeply human. It is an emergent aspect of human evolution. But it was also clear to me from this examination that whatever or whoever God or gods were, they clearly were different to different people. And so that there was no one God to me was my empirical conclusion to seeing the good-faith diversity of religious feeling that was out there.
ROSEMARY AVERY: So we're getting to the end of the structured question portion, and we're going to be taking audience questions. But I have one last question I want to ask Roald, you only. So Roald, previously--
You're shaking. Previously you've spoken on-- in fact, you've actually written on a topic that just fascinates me, and it's called "The Romance of Discovery" and the sense that there's something very thrilling and exciting and exhilarating about scientific discovery, something sort of beyond the discovery itself. A well-known atheist Richard Dawkins concurs with you that there could be something incredibly grand and incomprehensible and sort of beyond our understanding about science.
And in fact, Cornell scientist Carl Sagan said the following. "Science is not only compatible with spirituality, it's a profound source of spirituality." And some take this to be a signal that maybe there is a belief in a transcendence in your life, in their lives. And I'd like you to comment on that. Do you agree or disagree with Carl Sagan?
ROALD HOFFMANN: In general I agree with Carl Sagan. He also said a number of other things about science being a beacon in a world full of darkness in other ways. I just put a different spin or angle on what you say. I think there it is something emerging out of the human condition, as many other-- let us not speak of the evil things, but as many of the other good things, music, language, ethics. These are human creations, I would say. I think religion is one of them.
There is something-- there is a natural emergent quality. And I could talk some more on what emergence means in science or outside of science. But it is an emergent quality that, when you put diverse human beings together, they will seek, aside from the selfish satisfaction that they have in gaining specific knowledge that I do in science-- I publish it. Part of it is that part of the professionalism of science that I publish it, but part of it is I do want to share it. There is something that I do share with other people.
And when I go outside at night, we are near a full moon, and I look at that moon, and if I'm lucky enough to see stars, yes, I have personal pleasure in doing so, but part of that pleasure is that I'm sharing it with other people who are looking at the same objects. And I think we are sharing a spiritual feeling. I think the closest, probably, that we come to a shared transcendence or religious experience in our world is probably in listening to music, the most abstract of art forms and yet capable of making you cry. And is there anything better in the world than dancing with friends?
ROSEMARY AVERY: I think I need to let Praveen answer that one.
PRAVEEN SETHUPATHY: Well, that was a wonderful way to end, Roald, because I feel there are a lot more similarities in the way that we think than there are dissimilarities, actually. And I, too, am quite fond of music, and perhaps even more so because, in fact, I think it's what makes me tick. I meet with God in moments when I am listening to music. And believe it or not, it can be "Human Nature," Michael Jackson, as much as it could be [INAUDIBLE] and some sort of smooth jazz. So music is a very transcendent experience for us.
With regard to Carl Sagan's quote, whether I agree or disagree I think to some extent depends on what "spiritual" means. I think we all use it in very different ways. Based on the context of that quote, I think what Carl was going after, in my best estimation, is the awe and the wonder that we feel as scientists in the scientific enterprise, but really as any of us as we are interacting with the world around us. I think that there is a remarkable beauty that most of us are extremely inspired by and impressed by. And if that's what Carl means by spirituality, then I completely agree with that sentiment.
In some ways, though, I think that the scientific enterprise has been spiritual for me, not only in what it has shown me, but what I have come to understand it can't show me. And Darwinian evolution has done a beautiful job of helping us to understand any number of traits that humans or a number of other organisms may have.
It's even done so far a good job in explaining our various behaviors that may be hard to quantify and nail down. But why it is that we have emotional correlates for those things and that we have subjective experiences, and importantly, why is it that we are even here having this discussion, striving to determine whether there is any meaning in life, these are things that do make us uniquely human, and these are things that, as of yet anyway, are not well addressed.
And even the most strident of atheists or people that are non-believers generally concede that while that doesn't, of course, necessarily point to the existence of God, it is something that science is not addressing. And that is something that we are uniquely human in. There are a lot of emotional traits that we share with animals and other organisms but that we have the consciousness and subjective experiences that help shape our identity and lead us to question why there is anything at all and why there is meaning, that is something that I think makes us uniquely human and is a spiritual experience.
ROSEMARY AVERY: All right, so I think we're going to move to audience questions now. Can someone bring the questions up to me? There we go. Thank you, thank you. Modern technology, you've gotta love it, right? Thank you so much.
So I see we don't have the people who asked the question actually identified, so you are anonymous. So the first question is for Praveen. Do you think that the world has only one God? And do all religions claim the same goals but by different means?
PRAVEEN SETHUPATHY: So I do think that there's remarkable sharing of ideas across a lot of different faith traditions. If you boil down the religious experience to a set of ideas and concepts that help us to live our lives better, there's remarkable concordance. And we can quibble about some of the differences, and some of those differences are, I think, rather interesting to discuss, and we don't have time to today.
But it must be stated that there's remarkable concordance with a lot of these ideas. The golden rule that everybody likes to talk about is not a uniquely Christian concept, right? I mean, this is present in a lot of different faith traditions. And so I don't subscribe to the idea that there is nothing that other faith traditions can offer, that there is no truth that is held within them.
That being said, to me it's really not fundamentally-- and I think maybe this is because a little bit of my background, a sort of pitting one against the other. To me, it's fundamentally about the person of Christ. And in fact, if you take Hinduism, I was recently talking to a Hindu scholar who said, look, you say you're Christian. That's fine. You're Hindu, right? So there are diverse opinions of what it even means to believe in Hinduism and to be a Hindu.
And so it's a bit difficult, actually, to nail down and say, I'm going to compare these two things. I think for me, the most critical thing is the person of Christ. He has been transformative in my life, and it's through the process of developing a relationship with someone that I think is actually real that I have grown to understand what the Christian faith is to me.
And so I think there is a separation of culture and cultural values and cultural ideals from all sorts of different traditions that I highly value and incorporate in my own life. But the most critical thing to me is trying to understand who the person of Jesus is in my life and how that influences who I am and to a large extent, going back to this idea of the very radical self sacrifice that He made on behalf of mankind and then calls us to make. I think that is unique, and I think that it is very critical to understand that as we process our human identity.
ROSEMARY AVERY: Thank you, Praveen. The next question is for you, Roald. The Holocaust is the dominant challenge to many Jews' faith, but without God, where we do we find comfort and where do you find comfort in particular?
ROALD HOFFMANN: So those of you who know me know that I'm an optimist about human nature. I don't lock my car.
It's a trivial thing, but what is that? Is that a faith in Ithaca? Is that a faith--
But basically, I don't know where it comes from, but, actually I think part of it is survival of that same Holocaust and being grateful for that survival. And in that played a part of the goodness of some people who hid us out in the last 15 months of the war. So there was an act of goodness. Also, I was in the midst of great evil, but I was in what I've called a cocoon of love of an immediate family.
I have a basic optimism about human nature. It occasionally struggles when I get the referees reports on my paper.
There's this bunch of people who go on without logic.
PRAVEEN SETHUPATHY: I'm thankful that a Nobel Laureate is struggling with that as much as me.
ROALD HOFFMANN: I still am, just got a set. Now, I find that optimism just in the scattered acts of goodness by human beings in the midst of a lot of bad things. You only have to listen to the television or look on the newspaper, and yet there is enough there to go on for me. It comes just from interaction with humanity.
ROSEMARY AVERY: So here's a provocative question either of you can take or both of you can take it. Listening to the speakers, it seems that religion itself is a reflection of who are and your identity. It then implies the truth in religion depends on who you are. What is the universal truth, then, and how do we find it? Maybe you can start.
PRAVEEN SETHUPATHY: Sure. I in some extent this is true, although by no means do I think that we have proven this. But that doesn't mean that we won't in the future, or at least, as we've been referencing before, provide an accumulation of evidence in favor of the idea that the emergence of religion is a purely evolutionary reality. Some people even subscribe to the notion that is an evolutionary misfiring. Something that occurred across the course of evolution has led to us to come up with religion and is an unfortunate consequence of whatever the evolutionary process was. And I'll let Roald speak to that. I don't believe he holds that position. That's the position of someone like a maybe Richard Dawkins has said that, for example.
But I think there's a lot more to be done in that arena. These are speculations, by and large, very controversial. Some people have models to talk about this. But that kind of thing, that kind of research is very much in its infancy, in my opinion. Again, we should be careful to say because [INAUDIBLE] it will never be able to demonstrate some of the claims.
I think the more important question is, let's say it is able to demonstrate those claims, that it is a pure biological phenomenon, the emergence of religion. That's not particularly damning for me in terms of the existence of God and the reality of Christ and these kinds of things, because who am I to say God has brought about any number of things that make us human through the evolutionary process? That He would also make us, to some extent, spiritually capable and desirous of knowing something beyond ourselves, in part through an evolutionary process, is, I think, perfectly compatible with everything else that I've seen Him do.
And so the idea that religion as a notion, as a concept, that there's something beyond us, that we're looking for something else, that it could evolve, is not problematic for me. And I don't think that it necessarily-- I think it, in a lot of ways, sets the stage and sets the stage for Him to introduce Himself in a context and to a species that is ready to hear. So that's one way to think about it.
ROALD HOFFMANN: So I would say that all that there is is what is. And that suffices for me. Let me expand a little bit on that. What I mean is if you think that you are in a culturally diverse group of people and you are Christians, most of you, and you are, and I ask you to look at another group of people somewhere, sitting in a university in Japan or in India, maybe there is less diversity, because they don't have the economic wealth to bring immigrants there that we have, but the diversity with respect to goodness or evil, with respect to morality, among those people, grown up in an entirely different tradition and devoid of your idea of religion, I think the diversity is there, and it is equally heartening, and it makes me think that the possibility is there in all human beings independent of what religious beliefs they have.
ROSEMARY AVERY: So, Roald, the next question and the second-to-last question is for you. Are there objective moral standards? And if so, whence do they come?
ROALD HOFFMANN: So I think moral standards-- I'm not going to give a lecture on where ethics comes from. There are different views of ethics. One of them only is, for instance, the ontological one, that there are, let's say, typically typified by religion giving you a set of moral, ethical guidelines.
There is also a calculus of utility, the least harm done to least people. That's what the government actually uses in a number of drug tests. And finally, there is a virtue kind of way of looking that is you model your behavior on-- I'm just saying it one way. You model your behavior on those of other people's behavior you admire.
I think part of moral standards are including altruism as an important component, come out biologically. Though I don't share entirely Wilson's social determinism in biology, I think a lot is structured by human beings forced to interact with other human beings in confined circumstances. The paradise where we live far away from each other didn't have to meet other people, it never existed, because we always had family structures even then.
But we are now forced to interact with each other. And therefore, we are forced to enter a social contract. And as part of that social contract, there are moral obligations. So we abrogate the right to do some things in exchange for other privileges. I think ethics arises out of natural, personal, and societal interactions.
ROSEMARY AVERY: Praveen, I feel I must give you the opportunity to answer that same question. So let me just repeat it. And that is, are there objective moral standards, and if so, from whence do they come?
PRAVEEN SETHUPATHY: Yeah, I mean I think it would be fairly straightforward-- you may expect my response-- that there are objective moral standards. I should caveat that, though, by saying that we have imposed moral standards in a number of areas as religious people throughout history and even now in areas that I think are inappropriate. And I think that must be said. That's been happening since I think the beginning of humanity. And that's, I think, a tendency to impose our own will rather than a true objective standard on others.
But I do believe, because I believe that there is a God and that He's a god of order and not a God of disorder, that there are objective moral standards and that they do come from Him. Many of these objective moral standards, as I mentioned earlier, are shared among many different people groups. And I think that this is not surprising given the reality that we are all made in the image of God and that we are all children of God and have his fingerprints on us.
And so under the auspices of that framework, it isn't surprising that you would see many of these objective standards shared across traditions. You might bring up the point that there are some cultures that you can point to where the moral standards are completely flipped. So how do we deal with that? Where did they get their standards from, right? And so I don't know that it is so much about the standards as much as it is our striving for there to be standards in the first place. I think that that's perhaps more of the key question.
And I don't know that the answers from the evolutionary community are fully satisfying. There's a lot of controversy on how altruism and kin selection and things like this may have come about. There are some useful and interesting models, but I think there's a lot more to be done there.
But perhaps what I'll leave you with is this. Even if there are evolutionary models to explain it and things like that, and increasingly we're finding more and more that there are naturalistic explanations for any number of things, it doesn't preclude-- I mean, immediately, the question becomes, is there a need for God? And I have never quite understood that question, because either He exists or not. I'm not saying He exists because I find a need for Him necessarily. I'm saying that I think that, first of all, science, properly constrained within its purview, doesn't demand that there can't be a God. And secondly, in the best of my estimation, that's the model that makes the most sense.
But because there are naturalistic explanations for things does not preclude that there is a God. That may very well be how he chose to bring things about. And so that's a distinction that I think should be made as well.
ROSEMARY AVERY: So this clock in front of me is telling me that our time is nearly up. But I would like to ask both of you to maybe make some concluding remarks along these lines. As we've concluded the portion of our discussion, move onto these concluding remarks, what I'd like you to maybe address with the students and the audience is helping them deal with how they deal with their identity and faith, and maybe particularly within an academic environment, where it can be fairly aggressive in terms of discussions of faith and identity. So how do they find their faith? What guidelines would you give them to do that and their identity? Maybe Roald, if you could start, and I'll let Praveen finish.
ROALD HOFFMANN: As I said before, part of it is in your genes. But that's in some ways the least part. This is why knowledge of the genome and all those diseases, what does one do with that knowledge? It's an interesting ethical problem of our times, if you find out you have a 2% greater disposition toward a certain type of tumor.
There is something in our genes that guides us. So much more comes from the environment. And I want to say to the students that you are in the midst of the greatest mind-shaping interval in your lives in your college education.
For me, the world opened up at Columbia in the core curriculum, in a poetry course, in a history of art course. Everything in my subsequent life was shaped by the intellectual environment and your peers as well. And your ethical makeup was surely already shaped by the time you have reached your stage. But it's an intellectual adventure, so what I'm telling you is, don't look at those distribution requirements as a requirement. They're an opportunity for you to learn things that you never imagined you could learn before.
And then, you are an individual. It is true there are all these influences, but what will shape you, both as a person who makes a living, as eventually a husband or wife, a father and mother, what will shape your moral situation is in your hands. It's available in the novels that you read, even I [INAUDIBLE] in the prayer services that you go to, in the sharing that you do with other people. For God's sake, don't avoid interaction with other human beings not on the web. See, that's a double negative.
But I think what I mean. And you will be shaped in ways that you cannot imagine. You will emerge as an individual human being the same as other people and yet different.
PRAVEEN SETHUPATHY: One of the rules of these kinds of events, at least as far as I'm concerned and as I understand the mission of Veritas, is that we can demonstrate what it looks like to have a mutually edifying conversation among two people that on a particular topic happen to disagree. We are not doing this well nationally. And we are exporting this problem elsewhere because of the influence that we have on the global sphere.
This is my primary concern, that we are not having this conversation in a reflective manner, in a thoughtful manner, and in a humble manner. I happen to disagree with Roald on some of the things we discussed today. I have great respect and admiration for Roald and the processes that he went through to end up where he is now. And amazingly, he has the same respect for me.
And I think that we need to start from that place of humility. Rich Mullins, who is one of my heroes, said that-- and this is for the Christians in the audience-- if we were given the Bible, it was not so that we could thump our chest and say, we are right. It's so that we could recognize that we know very little and that as a Christian, you believe God is great. And if we assume that posture in the conversations that we have, a posture of humility, a posture of, I don't know the answers to a lot of things-- I'm on the journey myself. I want to wrestle with these things with you. I want to talk to people who disagree with me. I want to be willing to be challenged. I want to be willing to listen to why their experiences have shaped them. I'm going to think about the things that Roald has said today, right?
And that's the way that it should be. And I really want to encourage each of you in the audience to take that posture. You guys are going to be the leaders of the future. And if you can set the tone for how to have this conversation, then maybe we can begin to see change nationally and internationally.
The second thing, and I've made this point a few times, but it's really what I want to leave you with, neither Roald or I are here to convince you of either one of our positions. We've made it clear that there's an element of faith to both of our positions. It's what we have felt ultimately most comfortable with. And a lot of where we agree, actually, is what the purview of science is and isn't.
And science has really achieved this status in our culture among laypeople that it has a certain kind of authority that maybe in times past doctors had or things like that, that science can answer everything for us, the burning questions of life. And I think as a scientist, I have a responsibility and a burning desire to respect and honor what science is and what it isn't. And I would challenge you to do the same. Think critically and carefully about what these various frameworks that we interact with in life, what they can and cannot answer for us.
Because I think one of the most principle things for me in my life was realizing not that science proved or disproved anything to me in a spiritual realm, but only that I was freed from the conception or the misconception that science categorically disproves the things that are supernatural. Being freed from that, I was able to do my own reflective study. And you might come out on any number of sides when you do your own reflection on that. But I want you to feel the freedom to do that reflection about the supernatural.
ROSEMARY AVERY: Be curious. Be energetic. Look at it. Yes, examine. So I know that Alicia is going to come in and give us thanks. And [INAUDIBLE], I just want to personally thank both the speakers tonight. It's been a really stimulating and interesting discussion. Return again.
PRAVEEN SETHUPATHY: Thanks, Rosemary.
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Cornell professor Roald Hoffmann, an atheist chemist, and Praveen Sethupathy a Christian geneticist, discuss their views on what makes us human, with moderator Dr. Rosemary Avery. Sponsored by the Veritas Forum at Cornell, and Chesterton House.
Hoffmann is the Frank H.T. Rhodes Professor of Humane Letters at Cornell; Sethupathy is an assistant professor of genetics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.